New report finds serious shortage of oncologists in U.K.

By Philip Ward, AuntMinnieEurope.com staff writer

March 20, 2019 -- A comprehensive survey by the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) has highlighted the scale of the ongoing shortage of oncology staff in the U.K. Its annual census of 62 major cancer centers found more than 7.5% of consultant posts were vacant, and services are maintained only by large amounts of overtime.

Cancer experts have questioned how the National Health Service (NHS) will be able to roll out innovations such as immunotherapy drugs and high-energy proton-beam radiotherapy without more investment.

Dr. Tom Roques
Dr. Tom Roques, RCR medical director of professional practice for clinical oncology.

"Today's RCR workforce figures and forecasts show our cancer hospitals under immense strain -- some centers have seen a reduction or stall in consultant numbers and many are desperate but failing to recruit, predominantly because we do not have enough consultants in training," noted Dr. Tom Roques, the RCR's medical director of professional practice for clinical oncology, in a statement issued on 19 March.

"Clinical oncologists are vital to the rollout of these new therapies but we do not have enough of them and our workforce projections are increasingly bleak, which begs the question, what kind of service will we be able to provide for our patients in future?" he added.

Roques estimated that the U.K.'s clinical oncology workforce -- physicians who treat cancer with radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy -- is currently 18% understaffed. He predicted that the shortfall will grow to at least 22% by 2023, and he is deeply concerned that it is cancer patients who will suffer.

The key findings of the report include the following:

  • One in six U.K. cancer centers now operates with fewer clinical oncology consultants than five years ago.
  • Vacancies for clinical oncology posts are now double what they were in 2013, with more than half of vacant posts empty for a year or more.
  • Cover of the RCR report
    Courtesy of the RCR.
  • There were 922 clinical oncology consultants working across the 62 cancer centers in 2018. This equates to 863 doctors working full-time -- an increase of 46 full-time consultants in practice compared with 2017.
  • The U.K. is now short of at least 184 clinical oncologists -- the minimum number needed to fill vacancies and cover the extra hours doctors are working to treat patients. This compares to shortfalls of 144 doctors in 2017 and 78 in 2016.
  • While 53 new U.K.-qualified consultants are set to enter the workforce in 2019, these new recruits will not be enough to fill the 70 posts left empty in 2018.
  • To close the gap between supply and demand for cancer doctors, oncology trainee numbers need to at least double. Even with that investment, the gap would not be closed until 2029.

One cancer center admitted to having no new job applicants since 2015, stating "the situation is dire," and others said they could not fund, let alone recruit to, much-needed extra posts. Attempts to recruit from abroad have been patchy, with only five centers successfully hiring overseas doctors last year.

Overall, the RCR's workforce report estimated that by 2023, the NHS will need a minimum of 1,214 full-time clinical oncology consultants to look after cancer patients. However, based on current trends, there will only be 942.

You can download a free copy of the report on the RCR website.


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