Severe shortage of NHS cancer specialists is threatening patient care, warns report

Severe shortage of NHS cancer specialists is threatening patient care, warns report

  • Royal College of Radiologists warns the NHS will be 22% short by 2023
  • Cutting-edge therapies may not be delivered without more investment
  • One in six centres operates with fewer oncology consultants than five years ago 

A severe shortage of NHS clinical oncologists is threatening the care of cancer patients, a report has warned.

The Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) says a growing staffing shortage will leave the NHS a fifth short (22 per cent) of cancer consultants by 2023.

Cutting-edge cancer therapies – such as immunotherapy and proton beam therapy – may not be delivered to all those who could benefit without more investment, it warned.

The UK is now short of at least 184 clinical oncologists, it said, which was the minimum number needed to fill vacancies and cover the extra hours doctors are working to treat patients.

One in six UK cancer centres now operates with fewer clinical oncology consultants than five years ago, according to the report.

A shortage of NHS clinical oncologists is threatening the care of cancer patients (stock)

It said vacancies for clinical oncology posts are currently double what they were in 2013 – rising from 33 to 70 – and more than half of vacant posts have been empty for a year or more.

The warning comes as experts said cervical screening services were in ‘meltdown’ with dozens of hospital screening laboratories due to close this summer as part of a restructuring process.

Dr Alison Cropper, chairman of the British Association for Cytopathology, said the coinciding of the closures with a campaign by Public Health England could force women to wait months for screening results.

The RCRs report said there were 863 full-time equivalent clinical oncology consultants working across the UK’s 62 cancer centres in 2018 – up 46 on the previous year.

But this was not enough to keep up with demand with oncology trainee numbers needing to at least double to close the gap between supply and demand.

Almost 1,000 people are diagnosed with cancer every day and demand for radiotherapy is going up two per cent every year, while demand for chemotherapy is rising four per cent a year.

Dr Tom Roques, lead author of the workforce report, said: ‘The UK is seeing more and more fantastic innovations in cancer treatment – from the introduction of new immunotherapy drugs to the NHS’s first high-energy proton beam radiotherapy centre.

‘Clinical oncologists are vital to the rollout of these new therapies but we do not have enough of them and our workforce projections are increasingly bleak, which begs the question: What kind of service will we be able to provide for our patients in future?

‘Today’s RCR workforce figures and forecasts show our cancer hospitals under immense strain – some centres have seen a reduction or stall in consultant numbers and many are desperate but failing to recruit, predominantly because we do not have enough consultants in training.’


Official figures showed in February that 41 per cent – around 10,000 doctors – are 50 or over and are expected to quit within the next five to ten years. 

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt promised golden hellos of £20,000 for trainees who take up unpopular posts in October.

Fewer young doctors are choosing to specialise as GPs, and are opting for more ‘macho’ career paths as surgeons or specialists.  

Numbers of GPs are known to be dwindling in recent years, placing even more pressure on an over-stretched health service.

Many are retiring in their 50s, moving abroad or leaving to work in the private sector, as practices have threatened to close their waiting lists until action is taken.

This continued crisis has left many patients at risk, with staff unable to cope with the rising demand and slashed funding.

The shortage of doctors comes despite the NHS adopting a plan in April to recruit 5,000 extra GPs by 2021.

Mr Hunt’s pledge of £2.4 billion was said to be the answer to the staffing shortage, helping plug the growing number of vacancies.

This money was devised to lure GPs to move to the worst-hit areas of England, and to stop them from seeking another career. 

Thousands of new ‘doctors on the cheap’ are also being trained to prop up the cash-strapped NHS, it emerged in June.

An army of ‘physician associates’ will work in GP surgeries and hospitals to diagnose patients, recommend treatments and perform minor procedures. 

Scores of practices also believe they are working well beyond maximum capacity – feeling pressured to take on a higher workload and risk mistakes.