Three years ago, we launched our Local Cancer Statistics website – our one stop shop for cancer data from regions across the UK.
You can search for data based on any local area or post code in the UK at the click of a button.
And this has proved vital in tracking down where cancer services and care are doing well, or not so well – as our graphics below show for two areas that are above and below the national average for cancer incidence respectively.
Since we launched, the availability of local data has come a long way. For starters there’s more of it, and it’s better quality. It’s also being routinely published from reliable sources.
This means the choice of local data to view on our website has grown. We now house data ranging from the numbers of cancers diagnosed in different regions to survival figures for different cancers. We also have access to data on the causes of cancer – such as smoking and obesity – as well as cancer services, such as cancer waiting times performance and whether or not people are taking part in screening.
And this is just a few of the more than 150 different bits of data we have from across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
And in the last three years, this vast collection of information has helped us push key areas that we think local and national governments need to prioritise.
So what’s changed?
More than just numbers
We don’t just display the numbers. It’s also important to provide context to the figures to make them more meaningful.
That’s why we try and explain what the figures mean for cancer care in the UK.
We also signpost to further information and, where appropriate, the actions we recommend are taken and where we’re involved in efforts to see these numbers improve.
In the last three years, the local healthcare landscape has also changed. The way healthcare is commissioned and paid for has been reorganised, and public health responsibility has moved from the NHS back into local government.
To be effective in preventing, diagnosing and treating cancer, it’s more important than ever that decisions are based on evidence and the needs of the local population.
And that’s why good quality local data is so important.
Variation across the nation
National data aren’t always representative of every local area, so it’s important to understand the local picture to help serve the needs of that population.
This is true for cancer, where there is variation in how patients fare across the nation. For example, our graphic below shows how one-year cancer survival varies across England. This type of information is vital for those who organise cancer services in these areas as they look to set priorities for cancer care.
Understanding the different demographics that make up a population is also crucial in understanding the burden of cancer in a local area.
Age and gender affect a person’s risk of cancer. And the chance of being diagnosed with and dying from cancer increases with age. For example, men aged 75 or older are most likely to die from cancer than any other group. And ages can vary across regions.
For some cancers, deprivation – which spans a range of issues including income, employment status and education – and ethnicity are also important risk factors for cancer that can vary in different regions. And this variation could mean important changes are needed in some areas as people look to prevent, diagnose and treat certain cancers.
But demographics aren’t the only reason for variation in the chances of being diagnosed or surviving cancer. Performance of the healthcare system and lifestyle factors also contribute to the difference in the mix of cancers that occur among local populations, and how people fare.
So combining all these data is vital to ensure variation is addressed at a local level to help positively influence service and practice in some areas.
Local level data can be used to support the planning of health services, prevention plans, screening programmes and public awareness campaigns tailored to a local area’s need.
The data can be used to influence those who can make these decisions. And we know our website is playing a role in this.
Commissioners and health professionals, along with academics, public health professionals, local councils, policy-makers and cancer research writers, are using our website to inform and shape what they say and plan for local areas. They also raise issues that need to be addressed.
For example, local data can be used as evidence to influence MPs. Our hugely successful standardised cigarette packaging campaign is a great example of this – local smoking statistics were used to support the campaign and make the case to MPs that something needed to change.
And while our website was set up to inform and assist health and policy professionals, we know that patients and the public also frequently visit the site, reflecting the growing interest in getting a more accurate sense of how cancer services are performing locally.
Understanding the local picture
One of the objectives from England’s Cancer strategy is to tackle the differences in outlook for cancer patients across England by making sure everyone is able to access the appropriate diagnostic and treatment services across local areas. An intention echoed by Scotland’s Cancer strategy.
Since cancer services and public health services are organised and paid for locally, there is a need for those in charge to work closely in managing the growing demand in healthcare.
And in some places, this focus on making things local has been taken a further step: devolution. In Greater Manchester, decisions around health and social care spending are now being made by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, which took control of the £6 billion budget in April.
Devolution is intended to give the region increased freedom and flexibility to tailor its budget and priorities to suit the area’s needs. And there are plans for other areas to follow suit.
This means that understanding the needs of local populations in terms of public health and cancer is more important than ever.
We have provided local statistics relevant to smoking in the Greater Manchester area, to help highlight the health and cost implications that smoking leaves in a local community. And we hope this will help with planning vital Stop Smoking Services so they can meet the need of the population and reduce smoking rates.
It isn’t possible to change the health of local communities without evidence. We need data to back our calls for action.
It’s this evidence that can shape healthcare locally. And it has the potential to save lives.
Emily Maxwell is a local cancer intelligence analyst at Cancer Research UK