As the Prime Minister’s Labour Party Conference speech looms, where he will pledge improvements in diagnosing cancer earlier, we can exclusively bring you an interview between Gordon Brown and our chief executive Harpal Kumar.
So what are Gordon Brown’s plans for cancer services? We’ve previously written about the importance of early detection for improving cancer survival in the UK, and improvements in this area will help to save many lives.
But what will £1 billion of cancer services investment buy? Read on to find out…
Harpal Kumar – Prime Minister, tell us why you are focusing on cancer.
Gordon Brown – Sadly, cancer still casts a lengthy shadow over too many lives, robbing families of loved ones all too soon and stripping sufferers of their potential to fulfil their life’s ambitions. Despite excellent progress in prevention and treatment, few of us remain untouched by the effects of this disease.
And I am always deeply moved by the thousands of selfless volunteers who on a daily basis provide patients and their families with practical and emotional support. So, for me, one of this Government’s priorities will always be to prevent and eliminate all forms of cancer and to support all those living with it.
HK – What is this latest announcement?
GB – What we are saying today is that this Government has a radical plan to offer all patients the right to cancer tests and results within one week, which evidence suggests will help to save up to 10,000 lives a year. And anyone not offered the one week turnaround will be entitled to use an alternative NHS or private health provider.
HK – Why now?
GB – I am proud that over the last 12 years, we have dramatically improved the NHS and saved lives as a result. And this is particularly true when it comes to cancer. We have built up our hospital services for cancer patients and reduced waits for those most likely to have cancer.
So the logical next step is to improve access to the relevant tests so that GPs can refer patients directly and we can get more people diagnosed earlier to give them the best chance of survival.
HK -How much extra investment is there and when will it be made available?
GB – Health Secretary Andy Burnham has identified £1 billion of savings over the next five years as the Government’s major programme of renovating and rebuilding NHS hospitals nears completion. This will buy the new diagnostic equipment needed to guarantee tests and results within a week. Once fully implemented, the NHS will have the capacity to deliver additional tests, including ultrasounds, MRI scans and colonoscopies each year.
HK – Why are you making a major investment in cancer diagnosis?
GB – Thanks to the relentless dedication and commitment of NHS staff, medical researchers and charities, and sustained investment, we have dramatically shortened waiting times and improved survival rates across the vast majority of cancers since 1997. Mortality rates are falling year on year.
However, we know that historically survival rates have been poorer here compared with some other countries partly because of late diagnosis. So by investing in tests and early intervention we will diagnose more cancers at a curable stage. We will also be able to give early reassurance to hundreds of thousands of patients who do not have cancer.
HK – Buying MRI machines, giving CT scans and ultrasounds is obviously a good thing but will the Government also spend money on recruiting and training staff so that all the early diagnostic tests can actually be done quickly?
GB – Yes. There is no point in buying the extra machines unless we also have the right staff in place to conduct these tests. We recognise that it will take time to recruit and train staff, which is why this new commitment is being phased in over five years.
HK – Why are you focusing on ovarian, bowel and lung cancers?
We have spoken to GPs about the patients who give them the most concern and about the tests that they would most like to have rapid access to. They told us that they would like better access to ultrasound tests, which will help to diagnose or exclude ovarian cancer, endoscopy which is used for bowel cancer and rapid access to chest x-rays for lung cancer.
Over time we will also give GPs better access to tests for other cancers. The details will be worked out by our National Cancer Director, Professor Mike Richards, working with GPs, experts in diagnostics and cancer charities, like Cancer Research UK. Ovarian and bowel cancer patients often present with symptoms that are not always recognised as cancer by the GP.
HK – Will GPs get extra training in cancer so that they know when patients should be sent for these diagnostic tests?
GB – We will consider what extra training GPs might need as we take forward this advanced testing regime. If necessary, we will make sure training is available.
HK – Will you also address the problem of people with symptoms not going to see their GP quickly enough?
GB – Yes. This is very important because we know that lack of awareness of symptoms is also a problem. So the announcement I am making is only one part of a wider programme to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of cancer and to encourage patients to see their GP quickly when they do develop symptoms. We will publish further details on this later in the year.
HK – Is this money being spent throughout the UK or only in England?
GB – This commitment is for patients in England. Responsibility for decisions on health has been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is for the relevant authorities to make their own decisions. This is a really important step forward but we’ve got a long way to go to beat cancer.
HK – What else are you planning to do?
GB – Our Cancer Reform Strategy, which I launched in 2007, is a major programme to achieve world class outcomes for cancer and I am personally committed to ensuring we take forward improvements to prevention, screening, treatment and care – as well as on early diagnosis. We have introduced an unprecedented programme of screening for bowel cancer and expanded and improved screening for breast and cervical cancers. And in terms of prevention, all 12-13 year old girls are now offered a vaccine for the HPV virus, which we estimate will save up to a further 400 lives each year.
We also announced in June, as part of Building Britain’s Future, plans to enshrine as a right for patients access to a cancer specialist within two weeks. But in the end it is only by us all – Government, researchers, doctors, nurses, carers, volunteers and fundraisers – working together that we will achieve our ambitions.