Charity news

What does the election outcome mean for pancreatic cancer?

On 4th July, people across the UK went to the polls to elect a new government. On the same day, 26 people died of pancreatic cancer in the UK. Regardless of which political party has been in power over the past 50 years, the survival rate of pancreatic cancer has not significantly improved.

election pancreatic cancer labour

However, that does not mean that things can’t get better or that we shouldn’t fight every day to improve early diagnosis and save lives. Below, I’ve set out some of the new Labour Government’s commitments on health and social care, what that means for pancreatic cancer patients, and what we, as a campaigning charity, will do to hold them to account and ensure they keep their promises.

🟣 Many patients with symptoms struggle to get an appointment to see their GP. If they can see a GP and are referred for diagnostic tests or further investigations, the waiting lists are so long that by the time they are finally diagnosed, the cancer has grown to a size that it is then inoperable. The Labour Party manifesto has committed to “An extra two million NHS operations, scans, and appointments in England every year”. If this is delivered, then this could make a significant difference, meaning many more people are diagnosed in time for life-saving surgery. However, this is not something that can be delivered overnight. To create an extra two million appointments, there would need to be critical changes in how the NHS in England is currently structured, how referrals are processed, and swift action on filling the existing caps in the NHS workforce. To use just one example, the vast majority of pancreatic cancer patients have their cancer diagnosed via a CT Scan, yet there is a shortage of people who operate the equipment. Last year, the Society of Radiographers reported that the national vacancy rate for radiographers is 12.7%, and a million patients are currently waiting to be seen by a radiographer – similar issues for healthcare professionals in other roles vital to pancreatic cancer patients.

What will we do: Pancreatic Cancer Action has been raising the issue of workforce planning and its importance to our patients for a number of years now. We have raised the problem with the House of Commons Select Committee on Health & Social Care and included sections on workforce planning when responding to Government Consultations in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. As a charity, we will continue to push for robust workforce planning and ask for the current NHS Long-term Workforce plan to be urgently reviewed to ensure it is fit for purpose and adequately resourced.

🟣 Many people are surprised when they discover that the NHS is a system reliant on pagers and fax machines, equipment associated with the last century. Unfortunately, many of the machines used by the NHS are also ageing and in a state of disrepair. Not only is the NHS reliant on equipment that is past its best, but it also has a significant shortage. Many cancer deaths could have been prevented with earlier diagnosis and that is only possible if the equipment is there to diagnose people. The NHS has fewer diagnostic scanners per person than other countries. The new government has committed to introducing a new ‘Fit For the Future’ fund to double the number of CT and MRI scanners, allowing the NHS to detect cancer and other conditions earlier, saving lives. If delivered, this would be a huge step forward in our fight against pancreatic cancer. State-of-the-art scanners with embedded AI are faster and more effective at finding smaller tumours, and saving lives. Countries such as Australia, which have a much higher survival rate of pancreatic cancer, also have a much higher number of CT Scanners per capita than the UK. This, combined with the ability for GPs to make direct referrals, is key to getting more patients diagnosed in time for life-saving surgery.

What we will do: Pancreatic Cancer Action has been pushing governments in all four nations of the UK to increase the number of CT scanners significantly for some time. In a study carried out by the House of Commons Health & Social Care Select Committee in 2021 on why the UK lagged behind other comparative nations in cancer survival, we highlighted one of the key reasons was the lack of diagnostic equipment. As a charity, we will push to ensure the ‘Fit For the Future’ fund is brought forward as soon as possible and adequately resourced. We will also campaign for a minimum number of new CT scanners to be set so we can measure government performance and raise concerns about whether we believe the increase in equipment needs to be lowered. We will also lobby for a needs assessment to ensure that the new equipment goes to the areas where it would have the most impact. While new diagnostic tools are essential, we also need the workforce to operate them, which is why proper workforce planning is critical.

🟣 Every week we have families reach out to Pancreatic Cancer Action in a crisis. Their loved one has been diagnosed too late for surgery and they have been told there are no other options. They are looking for hope. Many ask about clinical trials and how they can get involved. We suggest that patients ask for their Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT) to refer their case and if they are appropriate for clinical trials. However, due to the process being cumbersome and difficult to navigate, as well as the unfortunate pessimism that exists around pancreatic cancer, very few patients are offered the opportunity to participate in clinical trials. The Government has committed to “maximise our potential to lead the world in clinical trials” by making the process more efficient and accessible, by speeding up recruitment and giving more people a chance to participate through the NHS app.

What will we do: This is a bold and ambitious aim, however, the details of this and how it will operate will be incredibly important. If an MDT feels the process of enrolling a patient is still too time-consuming or they believe there is no point, then nothing will change for pancreatic cancer patients. Pancreatic Cancer Action will campaign to ensure that patients are empowered to understand clinical trials and have the support to make informed decisions if they wish to enrol. We will do this by lobbying for a Public and Patient Involvement Group to be established to monitor the project and ensure that patients are informed and empowered.

🟣 For the vast majority of pancreatic cancer patients, their journey starts when they visit their GP with vague symptoms. Far too many patients have put off this visit due to the difficulty of getting a GP appointment. Those who get an appointment are often misdiagnosed and see a different doctor each time they visit their local surgery. Excellent primary care is the key to earlier diagnosis, but it is too often impossible to get an appointment. The Government has committed to “reform the system” through “training thousands more GPs, guarantee a face-to-face appointment for all those who want one and deliver a modern appointment booking system to end the 8am scramble.” They will bring back the family doctor by incentivising GPs to see the same patient so ongoing or complex conditions are dealt with effectively. If delivered, then this will have the potential to remove one of the barriers to people approaching their GP with concerns, and through seeing the same GP, they will be able to monitor the progress of symptoms, reducing the chance of misdiagnosis.

What will we do: While this all seems positive, the previous Government also made similar commitments, including training 6,000 new GPs that were unfortunately not delivered. The same is true in Scotland where there was a commitment by the Scottish Government to train 700 new GPs and it is unlikely they will get close to that target. As a charity, we will push to ensure that the learnings from the previous UK Government and the Scottish Government are taken on board so these aims can be delivered. We will also push for a publicly committed timeframe for these changes and for patient involvement in their design. Finally, we shall also ask the Government to set a target for the number of new GPs trained to ensure we are meeting the needs of the people.

Throughout the Government’s manifesto, there are a number of commitments that would impact upon pancreatic cancer patients and the wider community such as building new hospitals, moving services closer to communities and investing in prevention. Regardless of which party is in power in Westminster, we at Pancreatic Cancer Action will always fight for our patients and community. We will put patients at the heart of everything we do and ensure that their voices are being heard by the people in power.

Only by working together, we will be able to ensure that governments in all four nations of the UK keep those promises so we can improve early diagnosis and save lives.