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Tuesday, November 9, 1999 Published at 10:40 GMT


UK cancer care 'fails patients'

Money for cancer services needs to increase vastly, say doctors

Cancer care in Britain is to be examined by a committee of MPs in the light of claims by specialists that services are no better than those in some developing countries.

At a major conference on cancer care in London, doctors said that patients were failing to receive the drugs they needed because the NHS could not afford them.

Some specialists said that Britain's cancer services were on the level of "Third World" countries, and that it was not even up to the standard in some Eastern European countries.

Dr Ian Gibson MP, chairman of the House of Commons All-Party Group on Cancer, which organised the conference, called on doctors to campaign for improvements to services.

"The conference has raised issues and brought them into stark profile and we hope the Government will take notice of it," he told BBC News Online.

The conference, "Costs of Cancer Care", heard that Britain spent 95 pence per head on chemotherapy in 1997, compared with £6.24 in Germany and £7.76 in the US.

Difficulty prescribing drugs

As many as 55 per cent of people diagnosed with cancer in Britain never get to see a cancer specialist and almost nine out of ten doctors said they had difficulty prescribing new cancer drugs.

[ image: Campaigers claim they are being denied access to the best treatments]
Campaigers claim they are being denied access to the best treatments
Survival rates in Britain are also lower for many types of cancer. In Switzerland a patient with colon cancer has a 51 per cent chance of surviving five years and a 60 per cent chance in the US, but in Britain the figures falls to 36 per cent.

In France, survival rates for ovarian cancer are as high as 40 per cent, compared with 25 per cent for women in Britain.

Doctors "have to lie" to patients

Some doctors admitted that they lied to patients that no treatments were available rather than say that the NHS could not afford them.

St Luke's Cancer Care Centre in Guildford, Surrey, has a strict policy that patients are always given the full facts about their treatment.

Professor Hilary Thomas, from the centre, said: "I don't think doctors are lying maliciously. It is a more protective approach. They don't want to give patients information that is upsetting - telling them that there is a drug but we can't afford it."

Specialists said that an increase of between 200 and 500 per cent in spending was needed to bring services up to an adequate standard.

Professor Gordon McVie, director-general of the Cancer Research Campaign, said: " There is a direct line between funding and outcomes of cancer treatment and we spend less than many other countries on services.

"There are 400 cancer specialists in the UK, compared with 2,000 in France and doctors have every right to be cross.

"They are expressing their anger and frustration. Until we get substantial extra funding, patients will not be getting the service which they deserve.". Dr John Toy, medical director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, told BBC News Online that ther had been "chronic" underfunding of cancer services.

"The oncology commmunity is beginning to get frustrated at the rate of catch-up in our services compared with some other countries. We don't compare well with other Western European nations, such as Germany and France.

Dr Michael Clark, chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, which will conduct the inquiry, said that it would be a "root and branch" investigation.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn last month appointed a new cancer "tsar" to oversee all NHS treatment and improve services.

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