Today, a memo to Oxford’s Churchill Hospital staff stating that chemotherapy cycles could be cut was leaked to The Times. 

The memo, from the Head of Chemotherapy Dr Andrew Weaver, says that patients face delays as nursing staff numbers are down around 40%. Dr Weaver also indicated that the hospital did not have enough nurses trained to deal with medication at its day treatment unit and that “as a consequence we are having to delay chemotherapy patient’s starting times to four weeks”. 

An Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust spokesman reassured the BBC that the hospital had met the national cancer waiting time standard chemotherapy within31 days of a clinical decision having been made, despite increases in cancer patient numbers. 

The trust spokesman reassured the BBC that: “we have not made any decisions to delay the start of chemotherapy treatment or to reduce the number of cycles of chemotherapy treatment which patients with cancer receive.”

Early diagnosis and treatment is critical in helping patients beat cancer. For many of us, the prospect of cancer treatment being delayed or withheld is therefore shocking. 

 A recent Cancer Research UK report found that the number of cancer cases had risen by 8% each year; with cancer cases becoming more common, it seems the number of trained staff cannot rise quick enough to keep up. Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive said that it was “totally unacceptable” that shortages could lead to delays. 

It is hoped that the Churchill Hospital and others will not be forced to take the kind of drastic measures suggested by Dr Weaver at a time, but at a time when one in ten nursing posts are empty it is difficult to see how these can be avoided.

Experts have blamed the shortages on a lack of advanced planning and Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, has acknowledged that there is a “short-termist” approach to staff planning. 

Specialist nurse such as oncology nurse may take 5 or 6 years to train. Although government promises to increase nurse training numbers by 10,000 are a good first step the impact will not be seen for some time. 

It is increasingly clear that an ambitious and comprehensive expansion of nurse training and recruitment along with the reinstatement of bursaries for specialist training is needed in areas such as oncology with the staff shortages are affecting the standard of patient care. 

As clinical negligence solicitors, we see first-hand the impact that delays and staff shortages can have on the individuals and their families. 

If you have any concerns about your diagnosis or treatment of Cancer, please contact Carolyn Lowe, Partner, on 01856 781019 / carolyn.lowe@freeths.co.uk, or Catherine Bell (catherine.bell@freeths.co.uk) on 01865 781000 for a free, confidential discussion.