A leading hospital trust has been forced to reassure cancer patients their chemotherapy treatment will continue as normal after an internal memo suggested it could be cut or delayed due to nursing staff shortages.
The move follows an email sent by Dr Andrew Weaver, head of chemotherapy at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, that suggested a lack of specialist nurses had made current protocols “unsustainable”.
“The bottom line is that the current situation with limited numbers of staff is unsustainable”
“Currently we are down approximately 40% on the establishment of nurses on DTU [day treatment unit] and, as a consequence, we are having to delay chemotherapy patients’ starting times to four weeks,” said the email to colleagues, which was revealed in The Times.
In the email, Dr Weaver told staff he wanted to protect treatments that aimed to cure patients but went on to suggest that further chemotherapy cycles may need to be reduced.
“For example, where normally six cycles are given then teams should consider reducing to four cycles in total,” he wrote, according to the newspaper.
“I know that many of us will find it difficult to accept these changes but the bottom line is that the current situation with limited numbers of staff is unsustainable,” he said.
“It’s totally unacceptable that these shortages could lead to delays in patients getting cancer treatment”
However, Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has denied there have so far been any changes to policy on chemotherapy treatment, which criticised “inaccurate headlines” in the media.
“You may have seen some inaccurate headlines in the national and local news today that suggests we are planning to delay or decrease chemotherapy treatment at the Churchill Hospital due to staff shortages,” said a statement published the trust’s website today.
“These news stories are based on an internal email from one of our clinicians that was shared with The Times newspaper,” it noted.
“This 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,” it added.
The trust stated that the memo from Dr Weaver “does not represent a change to our formal policy for chemotherapy treatment”.
“No such changes have been made or will be made before thorough consideration has been given to all possible options,” it said.
The trust said it had consistently met the national waiting time standard for starting chemotherapy within 31 days of a clinical decision to do so being made.
“This is a standard we are committed to maintaining,” the statement from the trust added.
However, cancer charities have reacted with alarm at the suggestion treatment could be delayed or reduced because of workforce issues.
Sir Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, described the idea as “totally unacceptable”. “Cancer Research UK has been campaigning to urge the government to tackle cancer workforce shortages in the NHS for the last three years,” he said.
“It’s totally unacceptable that these shortages could lead to delays in patients getting cancer treatment,” said Sir Harpal.
“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,” he warned.
The charity chief executive called for “concrete action” on the recent plan developed 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,” added Sir Harpal.