Thousands 'not getting the best cancer treatment because of lack of doctors trained to use latest radiotherapy technology'
One in four cancer patients who receive radiotherapy in hospitals would benefit from the latest techniquesBut only four cancer centres out of 50 in England are currently offering the treatment
22:15 GMT, 24 November 2012
Thousands of cancer patients are being denied access to better treatment because of a lack of trained doctors, according to an ‘alarming’ Government report.
One in four cancer patients who receive radiotherapy in hospitals would benefit from the latest techniques, but some hospitals do not offer the treatment or provide it for only 0.1 per cent of sufferers, officials say.
Intensity modulated radiotherapy treatment (IMRT) is more accurate, has fewer side effects and avoids damage to healthy tissue, enabling patients to recover more quickly.
One in four cancer patients who receive radiotherapy in hospitals would benefit from the latest techniques
But a Department of Health report found that only four cancer centres out of 50 in England offer the treatment to all those who might benefit, because many specialists are not trained in how to administer it.
The Government has been forced to offer financial incentives to hospitals to provide more radiotherapy, which means they will now be paid per patient, to address the problem.
On average, only six per cent of patients are being given access to IMRT, which the report describes as ‘unacceptably low’.
Radiotherapy – using radiation to burn away cancer – is one of the disease’s most effective treatments and is used to treat 100,000 people a year.
The technique carries a risk of killing healthy cells as well as the tumour, but IMRT allows the rays to be targeted at specific areas.
A Cancer Research UK spokeswoman described the report’s findings as ‘alarming’ and said many patients may be suffering unnecessarily and for longer because they are not given access to the technique.
She said: ‘We’re extremely concerned by the shortfall in advanced radiotherapy.
‘If patients aren’t being offered techniques like IMRT when this would be the most appropriate treatment, they could be experiencing side effects they might have otherwise been spared.
Huge improvements are needed if we are to ensure that the right patients are getting the right sort of radiotherapy.’
Royal College of Radiologists president Jane Barrett accepted that not enough patients – just 16,000 each year – are receiving IMRT, and many were being denied the highest possible standards of treatment.
She said: ‘The report shows we still need more radiographers and physicists trained in the new techniques such as IMRT which could benefit 24 per cent of those who undergo radiotherapy.
‘Uptake is so slow because we have a workforce working very hard to deliver treatment on a day-to-day basis, but we need to give people time to get out of the workplace to train.’
To perform IMRT, doctors must complete a training course over several days and then be mentored when they return to hospital. Hospitals do not need any additional equipment.
The report also highlights that 26 out of 265 radiotherapy machines in England are past their use-by date, and a further 59 will need replacing in the next three years.
This will cost the NHS an estimated 100 million.
A further 147 machines are needed to cope with expected demand by 2016 as cancer becomes more common in an ageing population, at a cost of up to 200 million.
The report estimates that the amount of radiotherapy provided to patients will need to rise by 67 per cent in the next four years.