A quagmire of the government’s own making

Philip HuntPhil Hunt on NHS reorganisation and the threat to cancer patient support 

In the battle against cancer, the development of cancer networks has been a key factor in improving outcomes and raising standards of patient care. 28 networks across England have combined the experience of clinicians – both hospital consultants and GPs – with the input of patients to plan together to ensure their needs are met throughout the entire patient pathway. They are a key source of expertise and play a leading role in driving forward local cancer strategies

All this risks being undermined by the government’s massively disruptive changes to the NHS .The existing cancer networks are being abolished and their fantastic expertise is being lost. In their place are to be 12 ‘Strategic Clinical Networks’ which will encompass a number of different networks including cancer, cardiovascular, maternity and children, and mental health. Funding is being reduced and these new networks will be supported by central support teams who will replace many of the dedicated staff working in the existing networks.

Cancer Research UK are warning that the reduced budget and fluid nature of the proposals will lead to inadequate coverage across the care pathway in areas with less support for cancer clinicians. They point to the closure of the Greater Midlands Cancer Network, with media reports of 9 out of 12 staff being made redundant – representing a huge loss of expertise. It could be the first of many, and similar losses elsewhere could have a devastating impact on the quality of services for cancer patients across the whole NHS. 

Macmillan Cancer Support warns that the overall staff head count in cancer networks could be reduced significantly, with staff working mainly part time. They point out that experienced directors have to reapply for their current roles – something that is causing further uncertainty, instability and a network brain drain.

The new architecture imposed by the government on the NHS leaves a huge vacuum in strategic planning and leadership at the sub-regional level; and the weakening of cancer networks at the same time is nothing short of a disaster. I have an oral question on this in the Lords tomorrow (Wednesday) and will be reminding Ministers of their commitment to fund and strengthen these networks.

In the last decade, the NHS has made impressive improvements in cancer outcomes, and cancer networks have been at the heart of this achievement. It would be a tragedy if they were lost in the quagmire of the current reorganisation. The government must urgently re-consider.

Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is a Shadow Health Minister and Labour’s Deputy Leader in the Lords

Published 6th November 2012


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