Last week, as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Breast Cancer, I helped to launch the group’s new report ‘A Mixed Picture: An Inquiry into Geographical Inequalities and Breast Cancer’, which uncovers the true extent of a ‘postcode lottery’ in breast cancer diagnosis and care across England.
The report followed a year-long inquiry (October 2016 – November 2017), which gathered evidence from NHS leaders, clinicians, patients and charities. It reveals that, while overall outcomes for breast cancer are improving, stark geographical inequalities exist across England in screening, early detection and access to treatment and services. It shows that women under the age of 75 in the worst-affected areas are more than twice as likely to die from breast cancer as those elsewhere in the country.
The report, published with the support of the charity Breast Cancer Now, was widely covered in the national and local media, and I was able to call on NHS England and Public Health England to take action to end these widespread differences and to ensure women across the country receive fair access to the services, treatment and support they need.
The findings are of particular concern for us here in the West. The report shows the South West as a whole is the worst region in England for breast cancer waiting times, falling worryingly short of the recommended referral target. More than 15 per cent of patients wait longer than two weeks to see a specialist (15.5 per cent) – over three times more than in the North East (4.4 per cent).
The inquiry also heard serious concerns from NHS leaders about the ‘demographic time bomb’ facing the breast cancer workforce. Current vacancy rates, coupled with a mammographic workforce approaching retirement, are affecting the health service’s ability to cope with increasing breast cancer incidence among an ageing population.
Worryingly, over a fifth (22.36 per cent) of mammography posts are vacant in the South West. This exceeds the England average of 19.4 per cent, and is a stark contrast to the North East and Yorkshire & the Humber, where just 8.63 per cent of posts are vacant. These shortages can obviously affect the speed at which patients are diagnosed and treated.
But it is much more encouraging to see that the South West is one of the three top-performing regions for breast screening attendance and we now need to ensure this is matched in other areas. The earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the more likely treatment is to be successful. It’s so important for women to attend routine mammograms.
It was incredibly moving to hear from speakers at the launch event just how difficult it can be for breast cancer patients to get the support they need. While such variation across the region exists, we’re falling short of the government’s ambition of world-class healthcare for all cancer patients.