Without additional investment, the U.K.'s clinical oncologist workforce will be short of 247 full-time consultants by 2022 and will have only 22% of the 1,100 doctors that will be needed to treat growing numbers of cancer patients., according to the Royal College of Radiologists.
"Now, more than ever, government bodies, including Health Education England and its counterparts in the devolved nations, must urgently invest in training and retaining clinical oncologists," the RCR stated in its workforce census report for 2017, which culled data from every U.K. cancer hospital.
The RCR found 7% of National Health Service (NHS) clinical oncology posts sat empty in 2017 (up from 5% in 2016) -- a third of which were unfilled for at least a year.
Only two-thirds of the clinical oncologist trainees needed now join the workforce each year, while experienced clinical oncologists leave the NHS earlier with an average retirement age of 60 in 2017, compared with 64 in 2015 and 2016, according to the report.
Patient safety could be at risk as 1 in 6 doctors is struggling to find time to keep up to date, the RCR said. Individual doctors and the cancer centers they work for are getting busier: Nearly 1,000 people are diagnosed with cancer every day, and 99% of cancer centers are now working their radiotherapy machines nonstop for eight or more hours a day to keep up with the demand for treatment.
Doctors' hospital contracts split their working time into blocks of "programmed activities" with 10 considered the standard workload. In 2016, clinical oncologists had an average of 11.4 programmed activities a week, which rose to 11.5 last year.
In addition to clinical time spent with patients, these programmed activities have to include "supported programmed activities" (SPAs), meant for professional and service development.
Doctors need at least 1.5 SPAs to support their ongoing revalidation, according to the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. In 2017, 1 in 6 clinical oncologists did not hit that minimum, raising questions around whether a lack of up-to-date expertise could be putting patients at risk, the RCR said.
Consultant jobs are sitting vacant for long period: In 2017, 64 clinical oncology jobs were unfilled at any one time, a third of which were vacant for a year or more. An extra 144 clinical oncologists were needed across U.K. hospitals just to cover the increased contractual workload and unfilled consultant jobs in 2017.
The report may be downloaded at the RCR website.