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Overwork fears for breast cancer nurses

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Breast cancer nurse specialists are concerned they have too few staff to cope with an expected surge in referrals.

They have been told to prepare for a rise in referrals ahead of an extension of the age range called for NHS breast cancer screening from next year.

Currently, women aged 50-70 are routinely invited for screening, but after year long pilots at six screening centres in England all eligible women aged 47-49 and 71-73 will be asked to attend. This could see a 15 per cent rise in the number of screenings in the next six years.

The extension should improve detection rates, but nurse specialists fear this may have a “significant impact” on their workload.

Judith Clarke, lead breast cancer nurse at Warwickshire, Solihull and Coventry breast cancer screening service, one of the pilot sites, said there were 15 new breast cancers diagnosed over the pilot year - more than anticipated at just one site.

Ms Clarke said: “We absorbed the workload into the service but we were working at full capacity.” She said her service was now seeing up to 14 patients a week, compared with eight to 10 before the extension.

Vickki Harmer, breast cancer nurse specialist at St Mary’s Hospital in London, was concerned funds would be too low to pay for more nurses.  “Given the current financial situation facing the NHS, questions must be asked over how this will be implemented in practice,” she said.

A spokesperson for the NHS cancer screening programme said there would be funds for the roll out but decisions on how it was spent would be made locally.

Health minister Anne Milton told Nursing Times workforce planning was not something the Department of Health had done well in the past. She said the new government saw improving it as a priority.

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