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Monday, October 18, 1999 Published at 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK


£50m to boost heart surgery

The government wants to increase the number of operations

The government has allocated £50m to improve heart treatment on the NHS in a step that marks a shift in emphasis in its health policy.

The BBC's Niall Dickson: "Too many patients are not being given the treatment they need"
Previously top priority had been given to cutting the number of people on waiting lists, althought the government has always said it wants to tackle heart disease, cancer and mental health.

On Monday, Health Secretary Alan Milburn outlined specfic targets on heart disease.

He said the government wanted to increase the number of heart operations on the NHS by 10% over the next two years by "making maximum use of the cardiac capacity that currently exists".

It also planned to appoint an extra 330 cardiology consultants and 80 heart surgeons in England by 2005.

Welcome moves

The announcement came after Mr Milburn met 12 senior heart surgeons and doctors, including Professor George Alberti, president of the Royal College of Physicians and chairman of the group drawing up a blueprint for heart care in the future.

[ image: Alan Milburn says he will not go back on election promises]
Alan Milburn says he will not go back on election promises
Professor Alberti said: "The £50m spread over two years is a welcome kick-start to increase the capacity of the NHS in bypass surgery using existing teams of staff.

"The announcement fits in with the soon-to-be-published National Service Framework for Coronary Heart Disease, which is a long-term programme to improve care for patients with heart problems across the whole spectrum of care - from primary prevention to rehabilitation.

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"In the long term we will still need a major increase in the number of cardiologists, nurses, theatre staff and technicians if we are to meet the demands of the future".

Dr Peter Hawker, chairman of the British Medical Association's consultants' committee, said it was right to focus on heart disease, but pointed out that the extra 400 specialists were already in training.

[ image: Dr Peter Hawker said the government should consider expanding the number of training places]
Dr Peter Hawker said the government should consider expanding the number of training places
"I would urge Mr Milburn to take steps now to ensure that when they qualify, there will be consultant posts available for them," he said.

"It is also important to bear in mind that if we increase the number of front line heart specialists, we will also need a boost in pathology, radiology and anaesthetic services to support expansion."

The British Heart Foundation also welcomed the government's moves, but said the new strategy would need to look beyond improvements in surgery alone.

A spokeswoman said: "Primary prevention, with health education from an early age, along with effective secondary prevention and cardiac rehabilitation, is vital to reduce the number of people developing heart disease and provide a brighter future for those already affected."

Waiting list initiative

The government's change of emphasis also sparked a political row, with the opposition suggesting Labour had given up on its pledge to cut waiting lists.

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And doctors' leaders said it would be difficult to launch a sustained attack on waiting lists and serious diseases with present levels of funding.

But Mr Milburn said: "We will meet the waiting list pledge by the election, but that's just a start.

"We need to modernise every aspect of National Health Service treatment, starting with the big killers of heart disease, cancer and mental health."

Cancer review

Next week the Health Secretary will launch a review of NHS cancer services.

Public Health Minister Yvette Cooper denies the money is standard funding
He is expected to demand that no suspected cancer sufferers should wait more than two weeks between being referred by a GP and seeing a specialist.

Dr John Toy, charity director the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, said the emphasis on cancer was welcome but warned that referring all suspected sufferers to a specialist within two weeks could prove counterproductive.

"A two-week referral period could slow the treatment of those patients who actually have cancer because many non-cancer patients are likely to be referred for an urgent opinion."

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