End of life care will be placed under “an intolerable strain” in coming years, according to a new analysis by Macmillan Cancer Support.
By 2020, nearly 144,000 people a year in England will die of cancer – the equivalent of one person dying from the disease every four minutes, the charity has estimated.
“If nothing is done… then end of life care is heading for a meltdown”
Overall, there will be 15,000 more cancer deaths than in 2010, according to its calculations.
Calling for more investment in community services, Macmillan said the figures highlighted an urgent need to tackle the country’s “deeply imperfect” approach to end of life care.
Previous research by the charity found most people with cancer – 73% – would prefer to die at home, yet official data showed only 30% are able to do so.
An independent review of choice in end of life care that was commissioned by ministers and published last year made a raft of recommendations, including the need to expand out-of-hours community services.
The government has yet to respond to the recommendations, but Macmillan said they should be funded in full.
It estimated that if no action was taken then nearly 65,000 people dying of cancer over the next five years would experience poor overall care in their last three months.
“It is shocking to think that one person will die of cancer every four minutes, but worse still that many people dying of cancer may not get the care they need, and that their final wishes will remain unfulfilled,” said Lynda Thomas, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support.
“It is unacceptable for a person dying of cancer to have to go to hospital when they don’t want to be there, because care and support wasn’t available at home,” she said.
She added: “If the government really wants to improve end of life care for everybody, then investment is vital. If nothing is done and the country’s deeply imperfect arrangements continue, then end of life care is heading for a meltdown.”
The Royal College of Nursing said palliative care had made huge strides in recent years, but warned that such advances were under threat.
“For many people with cancer, as well as other conditions, ‘a good death’ is possible, but it requires resources, particularly for district and community nursing teams,” said Amanda Cheesley, RCN professional lead for long term conditions and end of life care.
“Death can be hard to predict and it can come at any hour of the day or night – which is why care needs to be available at all times to all who may need it,” she said.
“It’s also something we need to be much better at talking about otherwise underfunding and pressures will mean more dying people in hospital against their wishes,” said Ms Cheesley.
She called on the government and the NHS to “work together to fund the system and ensure that does not happen”.
Simon Chapman, director of policy and external affairs for the National Council for Palliative Care, said Macmillan’s warning of a looming crisis was “a serious concern for us all”.
“We repeat the call for the government to implement all the recommendations of the choices review as a matter of urgency,” he said.
“This must include making sure that access to palliative and end of life care is properly funded for everybody, regardless of their diagnosis, throughout the country,” he added.
The council has previously warned of potential shortage of specialist nurses. The latest edition of its workforce report is due out later this month.
Scott Sinclair, head of policy and public affairs, fellow charity Marie Curie, said: “Time is ticking. The government needs to commit to investing in palliative care services now to address the unacceptable variation in care and to cope with the unprecedented demand in the future.”