Health chiefs offer reassurance on Oxfordshire cancer care after leaked memo

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Oxford University Hospitals was quick to respond after the Churchill Hospital made national headlines this morning, Wednesday, with claims staff shortages were causing a reduction in cancer care.

The Times led its front page on a story based on a leaked memo from head of chemotherapy Andrew Weaver which suggested patients were waiting longer for treatment to start and that some patients might face fewer cycles of treatment, because of a shortage of specialist nurses, put at approximately 40 per cent.

But in a statement, the trust acknowledged that while there is a staffing issue no decisions have been made to make changes to treatment.

It said: “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.

“The internal email from Dr Andrew Weaver sets out some of the challenges facing our chemotherapy service, with his ideas for how to tackle these issues, and invites constructive comments and alternative proposals from other cancer doctors and clinical staff.

“However, it does not represent a change to our formal policy for chemotherapy treatment. No such change has been agreed by Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

“We would like to reassure our patients that no changes to chemotherapy treatment have been made or will be made before thorough consideration has been given to all possible options.

“Any decision to change the approach to cancer treatment so significantly would require a thorough assessment of the potential impact on the quality and safety of treatment and care provided to cancer patients, options outlined clearly in writing, and a formal proposal presented to the Trust’s Executive Directors for their approval before implementation.

“Any changes to treatment would also need to comply with national guidance and evidence from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and others.”

The statement also said the trust meets the national standard of starting chemotherapy within 31 days – and has done so for the last three years, at a time when the number of patients has risen by 10 to 12 per cent a year.

In terms of the staffing situation it said: “In common with many other NHS organisations, Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust faces an ongoing challenge to recruit nursing staff.

“Specific initiatives within our chemotherapy service include weekly shortlisting and interviewing of clinical staff, as well as rapid access to chemotherapy education and training for newly recruited staff.”

Rosalind Pearce, executive director of Healthwatch Oxfordshire, said: “We hear a lot about staff shortages at the hospitals, and the public needs to know what is going on, what the hospital is doing about it, and whether it is going to impact on patients.

“The hospital authorities should be more positive and tell the public how they are overcoming the difficulties so that the public and patients can be reassured.

“We don’t want to wait until someone tells us there is a problem – the trust should be managing this much better.”

Banbury and Bicester Labour Party described the situation ’disgraceful’ and criticised both the NHS trust and government.

A spokesman said: “This is frightening news from out of the blue. Who knew that the nursing shortage in chemotherapy was so huge? Being 40% understaffed is not a blip, it’s a disgrace.

“It’s quite clear that recruitment is not going to improve, and these heroic professionals are not going to be able to provide the service they trained for, until we start paying nurses a salary they can live on, and stop underfunding the NHS to the point where it ceases to function.

“The trust and the government should be called to account for this utter failure. Do we have an NHS or not? Do we as patients have a right to expect timely and clinically appropriate treatment, or is it all over?

“No one voted for this. We were promised an NHS that would work, and be properly funded and efficiently organised. Instead we get this.”

Cancer Research UK said it was ‘totally unacceptable that shortages could delay cancer care and the government needs to step in.

The charity’s chief executive Sir Harpal Kumar said: “Cancer Research UK has been campaigning to urge the Government to tackle cancer workforce shortages in the NHS for the last three years.

“It’s totally unacceptable that these shortages could lead to delays in patients getting cancer treatment.

“Immediate action needs to be taken by the Government to deal with this, otherwise problems like the one at Oxford will become more widespread and more severe.

“We need to see concrete action on the recent plan by Health Education England to tackle NHS staff shortages.

“An extra 150,000 people are expected to be diagnosed with cancer annually by 2035. This issue will not go away without decisive action.”