One specialist said the situation is so dire that some areas are now rationing or deferring cancer treatments due to staff shortages.
In all areas, health boards and trusts are paying private companies to read images because they do not have enough of their own specialists to cope with patient numbers.
Staff shortages, particularly for radiologists who interpret scans, are behind the problem as well as treatment delays due to a lack of kit, IT and people.
Experts say there is a “double hit” of delays in diagnosis and then delays in subsequent treatment.
Research released last week shows the UK had a 17 percent shortfall of clinical oncologists – the doctors who treat cancers – with shortages as high as 29 percent in radiology – a key part of cancer diagnosis and treatment. The report from the Royal College of Radiologists predicts the shortfall in radiologists will rise to 39 percent by 2026.
It also showed significant regional disparities in shortages – London has 9.6 oncologists per 100,000 older population (55+), whereas in the North/West, Wales and the East Midlands, the figures are 3, and 4.5 respectively.
The survey found every single cancer department Head of Service in the UK is concerned about workforce morale, stress and burnout Dr Jeanette Dickson, President of the Royal College of Radiologists said: “There is a risk patients are dying unnecessarily because of staff shortages.”
“We have a 17 percent shortfall of clinical consultants who provide radiotherapy, immunotherapy and chemotherapy services, but there are shortages across all cancer services.”
“We have never seen a system-wide problem like this. It means patients are waiting longer for treatment, treatments are being deferred and in other cases patients who stand to gain the most from treatment are being prioritised.”
“We know these delays are increasing the risk of death.”
“The situation we are in is simply unsustainable and, as these reports show, the impact of a doctor shortage is being felt across the country and affecting our ability to diagnose devastating diseases such as heart disease and stroke but also affecting our ability to diagnose and treat cancer in a timely manner.”
A separate report by cancer charity Radiotherapy UK and the CatchUpWithCancer campaign released today, found vital radiotherapy services – considered the best backlog buster for cancer waiting lists – have crashed with nearly 20 less patients being treated compared to pre-pandemic levels.
This report also points to research showing the cancer backlog is up to 100,000 patients; the charity warns the numbers are likely to grow without investment into treatment capacity.
Leading oncologist and co-founder of #CatchUpWithCancer, Professor Pat Price said: “Today’s shocking data reveals how stark the current situation in cancer treatment is, particularly for radiotherapy services. We are also hearing from so many sources that areas are now having to ration services and many other patients are not being treated within the 62 day target.
Some departments are having to close machines due to lack of staff. This is coming at a time when backlogs are so high yet there is less capacity to treat people.
“It is like the recent passport and aviation problem with huge post covid backlogs that have not been properly planned for. But instead of missing a holiday people are going to die waiting because the only way off a cancer waiting list is to die.”
She added: “At the beginning of the covid pandemic we had guidelines which said we could ration or defer treatment and only treat the most urgent cases. Deferred treatment led to backlogs, any such deferral now why do people think they can defer to this guideline still? This will only add fuel to the fire.”
“Despite constant reassurance from NHSE Senior Leadership that cancer treatment is close to pre-pandemic levels, this is clearly not the reality on the ground. The cancer backlog is growing and there are not enough people being treated with radiotherapy, which is a silver bullet treatment to solve the backlog.”
Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research estimated it could take more than a decade to clear the cancer-cancer backlog in England with an estimated 19,500 undiagnosed due to missed referrals.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “There are record numbers of doctors, nurses and healthcare staff working in the NHS and our 10-Year Cancer Plan will set out how we will lead Europe in cancer care.”
“Our plan to tackle the Covid backlog and reduce cancer waiting times includes record investment and rolling out up to 160 community diagnostic centres across the country – with 90 already open.”
“We are already seeing good progress with one million additional scans delivered and the number of people on the longest waits halving in the last four months.”