Cancer care threatened by staff exodus to the west

Cancer rates are set to rise as the population ages. Picture: Toby Williams
Cancer rates are set to rise as the population ages. Picture: Toby Williams
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SOARING cancer rates and a brain drain of doctors to a new special centre in the west are threatening to seriously harm treatment in the Capital, the health board has been warned.

NHS Lothian is braced for an exodus of expert workers from its world-renowned Edinburgh Cancer Centre, based at the Western General Hospital, to a new state-of-the-art radiotherapy facility 35 miles away, which could open as soon as next year.

And with health bosses already struggling to fill highly skilled jobs at the flagship base, there are fears patients could be left to wait longer for lifesaving treatment – putting their recovery at risk if urgent action is not taken.

Members of the NHS Lothian board have been told that the new centre, which will operate at Monklands Hospital in Airdrie and operate as a satellite facility to the Beatson Cancer Centre in Glasgow, poses a “specific risk” to the Edinburgh Cancer Centre.

City staff may be tempted by more than 50 full-time jobs, including more than 20 radiology speciality posts, at the new £22.5 million unit. The issue is just one of several that are combining to put the future of cancer services in the Lothians at risk, with the NHS facing a huge challenge as rapidly increasing numbers of people are diagnosed.

It also emerged today that:

• UK-wide and even global drives to attract senior clinical scientists to Edinburgh have failed.

• Staff shortages in the north have meant patients with some cancers are currently being sent to the Capital for treatment, ramping up pressure on already stretched staff.

• Bosses have been forced to take on clinical scientists without the appropriate skill levels in 40 per cent of cases in the past three years, leaving them requiring extensive on-the-job training.

• Staff are working overtime, with a “very high out-of-hours commitment” for engineers who service and install lifesaving equipment, leaving NHS Lothian close to breaking EU working time laws.

• 40 per cent of the most senior clinical scientists at the centre will retire in the next five years and health bosses are unlikely to replace them on a like-for-like basis – which will lead to a direct impact on service provision.

• The Scottish Government is yet to issue an action plan or even give a formal response to the concerns, despite the problems being raised five months ago.

Nick McAlister, NHS Lothian’s head of workforce planning, said in a candid report to health chiefs that the issues pose a risk to services as they are provided currently.

However, an ageing population means cases of cancer will increase in the next decade – with the number of appointments for radiotherapy treatments at the Edinburgh Cancer Centre set to rise by 15 per cent by 2021 – making the situation more critical.

Mr McAlister said that soaring demand, staffing concerns and the new radiotherapy centre near Glasgow meant there were “considerable risks ensuring there are the required numbers and levels of staff to sustain and grow the service”.

Professor David Cameron, NHS Lothian’s director of cancer services, said there was a growing need for radiology services across the country and that while there was not currently a crisis, action was needed to avert one.

He said: “What’s needed – and the Scottish Government have been told this – is to train more people to work in radiotherapy centres wherever they are in Scotland.

“As far as I know they’re doing the right things but we need them to get on with it.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said treating cancer was a “top priority” and survival rates were increasing country-wide.

She added: “We are working with all health boards, including NHS Lothian, through a National Planning Forum group to examine how we sustain and improve clinical services in all cancer centres in Scotland.”

Dr David Farquharson, NHS Lothian’s medical director, said “a number of potential issues” with regard to the recruitment and retention of radiologists in the coming years had been ­identified.

He added: “We have passed these concerns to the Scottish Government and we have already pushed ahead with plans to set out the detail of a national clinical technology training programme, which is being led locally.”

The World Health Organization yesterday revealed cancer cases will reach 24 million a year by 2035 globally. Figures covering Edinburgh reflect the epidemic, with cases expected to increase by two per cent a year. Prostate, skin and non-Hodgkin are considered the biggest risks.