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Thursday, 27 July, 2000, 11:48 GMT 12:48 UK
MPs face up to cancer challenge
MP visit
MPs travelled to centres of excellence around the world
Improving cancer care in the UK is a tough job that will require a complete change in medical culture, a BBC documentary reveals.

Fighting Cancer follows members of the House of Commons Science and Technology select committee as they investigate why the UK lags behind many other developed countries in treating the disease.

It is frankly quite embarrassing at international meetings talking to colleagues

Dr Mike Cullen, Royal College of Physicians

They hear frank admissions from top doctors have some GPs deal with cancer half-heartedly while consultants cannot use the best drugs because of limited resources.

The depth of the problem is summed up by Dr Mike Cullen, chairman of the Royal College of Physicians' committee on medical oncology, who tells the select committee that funding for cancer in the UK was not adequate.

"It is frankly quite embarrassing at international meetings talking to colleagues and finding out there is exciting experience with new products in various diseases that I treat, and I have no access to these simply because the resources available to us are inadequate."

Even when money is made available, it disappears into the system.

Dr Raj Chopra, director of the adult leukaemia unit at Manchester's Christie Hospital, said: "We are bewildered. We are told there is a national budget for research and when we are back at our trust we are told that is just virtual money, it doesn't really exist to develop research and development."

US system

The problem in the UK contrasts sharply with the situation in the US, where three years ago health lobbyists successfully campaigned for government to double the budget for medical research.

Dr Liisa Elovainio
Dr Liisa Elovainio says cancer can be effectively treated

Significantly, the US has a much better record on cancer survival rates.

Dr Des Turner, a Labour MP and select committee member was impressed by the way the US authorities listened to experts in the medical field.

"Public pressure for delivery in the States is fantastic, and is an example for us."

Committee chairman Dr Michael Clark, a Tory MP, believes it will be difficult for the UK to follow the US lead.

"Because government in the UK makes so little contribution to cancer research, since the majority of it is from charities, government really cannot call the shots, and until government puts more money in it will not be able to co-ordinate and direct how it is done.

"The Americans have had a war on cancer for over 30 years now.

"We are just starting a war on cancer now, and because we are 20 years behind them on that, we are 20 years behind them on results."

The MPs also travelled to Finland, which has an exceptional record on cancer care, despite spending little more per head than the UK.

There they met Dr Liisa Elovainio, president of European Cancer Leagues, who said reforms of the UK public health system had the potential to achieve significant results.

"Cancer is actually one of the most curable chronic diseases.

"Every time you centralise cancer care you get better results."

Dr Michael Clark
Dr Michael Clark says the UK is 20 years behind the US

After their investigations, the committee members became convinced that the best way forward is to set up a National Cancer Institute similar to that already set up in the US.

It would take over funding and the organisation of research.

Committee member Dr Ian Gibson, a Labour MP said only an institute devoted to cancer could put in place plans for a network of high quality cancer hospitals.

"I don't think you can leave it to the Department of Health which has so many other things coming in on them, meningitis, TB even.

"Sort cancer out, and the other things will fall into place."

Fighting Cancer is broadcast on BBC Two at 1840 BST on Saturday 27 July.

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See also:

13 Jul 00 | Health
Cancer drug 'cash crisis'
19 Jun 00 | Health
Call for national cancer agency
01 Jun 00 | Health
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24 May 00 | Health
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