Conservative Party cancer strategy

Mark Simmonds MP was first elected as the Member of Parliament for Boston and Skegness in 2001.  He has since held Shadow Ministerial positions in Education, Foreign Office and International Development and was appointed Shadow Minister for Health by Rt. Hon. David Cameron MP in 2007.  His Shadow Ministerial responsibilities include cardio-vascular, primary care, NICE, pharmacy and cancer and he is currently working on the Conservative Party’s cancer strategy. 

Cancer will impact on almost all of us at some point during our lifetimes, either as a patient, relative, friend or carer.  Britain is fortunate to have an NHS free at the point of delivery, based on need not ability to pay, and I am proud that the 2007 Commonwealth Fund report ranked the British health service highest on quality, efficiency and equity.    Britain has led the way in many pioneering cancer treatments, and is a world leader at treating many types of cancer; particularly rare and complex forms of the disease.   

It is British scientists who have been at the forefront of research into identifying many of the genes that are known to be associated with the development or increased risk of cancer and researchers based in the UK have been instrumental in developing many of the drugs and treatments to fight the disease.   

Britain has always led the way in cancer prevention; offering cervical screening from 1964 and establishing the world’s first national breast screening programme in 1988.  A national bowel cancer screening programme will be fully implemented in the near future, and the first young women will receive a vaccination against the HPV virus (which is known to cause cervical cancer) later this year. 

Britain also has a first-class network of charities and support groups that provide emotional and practical advice and assistance for those living with cancer, their families and friends, and through the internet and resources such as this magazine we are able to access a wealth of information about cancer; its causes, treatments and effects. 

I am proud of all these achievements, and want to see Britain continuing to lead the world in new an innovative methods of diagnosing, treating and caring for people with cancer and in my capacity as Shadow Minister for Health I will work to ensure the country has the resources, facilities and skills to achieve this. 

However, despite these achievements, we must not be complacent there remain areas in which Britain lags behind other European countries.  Of greatest concern are five year survival rates.  Only 49% of cancer patients in Britain survive for five years after diagnosis; which is lower than almost all European countries.  If the UK achieved European-best levels of cancer survival rates then 95 lives per day would be saved; or over 34,000 every year.  Matching, or exceeding European survival outcomes, must therefore be the priority for Britain’s cancer services. 

Additionally, we must do more to improve the quality of life for those living with, and beyond, cancer.  The clinical journey for a cancer patient can be long, emotional and difficult and the health service must be effective, compassionate and responsive to an individual’s needs.  I recognise the need for an increased number of Clinical Nurse Specialists to act as a link between the patient and the health service, and to offer information, support and advice.  As more people live through and beyond their cancer they will need assistance in rebuilding their lives, returning to work and accessing support and information about secondary cancers and I am supportive of cancer link individuals continuing to offer this support and assistance after treatment has finished. 

There is no doubt that the NHS has received vast additional funding over the last decade and it is now widely accepted there are sufficient resources in the system to achieve our aims of providing a world-class cancer service, exceeding European five year survival rates and improving the quality of life for those living with, and beyond, cancer.  Personally, I believe that Britain’s failure to achieve these outcomes is a result of this Government’s mismanagement of the NHS; they have under-spent the capital budget by 1.8bn in the last financial year, and productivity has fallen by up to 7.5 per cent between 1999 and 2004. Coupled with top-down targets, excessive bureaucracy and inequitable funding allocations it is central Government’s failures, not resources, that leave the UK trailing other European nations on five-year survival. 

The Conservative Party have already outlined our commitment to the NHS; it is our number one priority and we will ensure the health service is fully resourced to deliver standards of healthcare among the best in the world.   We believe there must be three priorities for healthcare; it must be patient-centred, it must be based on delivering outcomes not meeting narrow targets and there must be a greater focus on improving public health. 

In cancer services in particular there are a number improvements that must be made before Britain can offer a truly world class service.  We welcome many of the objectives of the Cancer Reform Strategy, and would maintain the Government’s commitment to investment in digital mammography and increased radiotherapy.  But alongside investment there needs to be a coordinated effort to reduce health inequalities, increase cancer screening, ensure funding reflects the burden of disease and increase the provision of high quality, accessible information. 

Reduce Health Inequalities.  Those in the most deprived areas are more likely to die if they are diagnosed with cancer than those in more affluent areas.  We aim to reduce these inequalities through a focus on preventative health.  We have pledged to create a separate public health budget within the NHS total budget which will be allocated to reflect deprivation, as there is a demonstrable link between socio-economic deprivation and poor public health.  These resources will be used for both primary and secondary prevention; to educate the public about the impact of lifestyle choices on cancer risk and promote awareness of symptoms and encourage early diagnosis.  High quality, accurate and accessible information is essential and we would work with the NHS Information Centre to ensure all cancer patients have access to suitable information on their condition at every stage of their cancer pathway, provided not only by cancer specialists and GPs, but through community-based professionals such as pharmacists.

Increase Cancer Screening. Britain currently offers one of the most comprehensive cancer screening packages in the world.  But take up rates can be low; just 55.5% of women in London attended for breast cancer screening in 2005-06 and in the same year the percentage of women who had been screened for cervical cancer within the previous five years fell to 79.5% - the first time it has been lower than 80% for more than a decade.  Greater steps must be taken to encourage more people to attend screening, particularly minority ethnic and ’at risk’ groups, by providing more easily accessible screening facilities, such as in shopping centres and pharmacies, and by ensuring those who have English as an additional language are aware of their entitlement to cancer screening. 
Ensure funding reflects the burden of disease.  The funding allocation formula overstates the impact of deprivation relative to that of age, despite evidence to show there is a strong correlation between age and cancer than between deprivation and cancer. Conservatives have repeatedly called for an allocation formula better adjusted to reflect the relative burden of disease.  We have outlined our plans to give responsibility for the allocation of NHS resources to an autonomous NHS Board so as to secure as far as practicable equal access to health services.

Information - We know that information is key to improving health, from better understanding the causes and risks of illness to treatments and their side effects.  We want to see a greater use of patient prescriptions and patient reported outcomes and would judge the NHS not on narrow process driven targets, but on the outcomes that are achieved for patients.  Put simply, we believe the NHS should be assessed on how effective it is at making people better.  We would also like patients to be given greater information about their condition and the range of treatments available so they are better able to choose what course of treatment, if any, to pursue. 

Alongside these improvements, we would like to see cancer treatment offered closer to home in specialist facilities and one-stop diagnosis centres, where patients could receive the full range of tests and treatments required, without unnecessary inpatient stays or lengthy delays.   

Conservatives recognise the challenge of providing world class cancer services in the UK.    Demand is going to grow as our population ages and treatments improve.  The gap between Britain and other European countries will not narrow unless action is taken now.  Britain has the resources and the staff to achieve five-year cancer survival outcomes amongst the best in Europe and a Conservative Government would ensure there was the vision and political will to achieve this goal.

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