More consultants needed to treat cancer cases

The Irish Hospital Consultants Association has called for a significant increase in the number of consultants dealing with cancer diagnosis and treatment, in light of the report from the National Cancer Registry Ireland (NCRI).

While welcoming the indication that rates of cancer appear to have stabilised or even fallen recently, the Association stressed that the numbers of cancers diagnosed have continued to rise annually, mainly due to our ageing and growing population.

“The new National Cancer Strategy 2017-2026, which was launched earlier this year, acknowledges that there is a ‘compelling  need’ to increase the number of consultants available to care for cancer patients and particularly in the medical oncology units,” said IHCA President Dr Tom Ryan. “This involves an immediate need to address the existing deficit in consultant medical oncologists and also to plan for the additional requirements resulting from the forecasted increase in cancer incidence, as well as the increasing complexity of medical oncology therapies.”

An evaluation report on the implementation of the previous Strategy for Cancer Control in Ireland (2006) indicated that the number of medical oncologists in Ireland was just over half that which international standards would suggest as appropriate at a minimum (34 medical oncologists vs 60). As at the end of 2016, there were just 40 medical oncologists in the country – 38% of whom were concentrated in the Dublin/Mid-Leinster region. There were also just 26 radiation oncologists, including two paediatric radiation oncologists.

Cancer is still the second most common cause of death in Ireland, with an average of 8,770 cancer deaths per year occurring during 2012-2014.

The NCRI estimates that there were more than 167,000 survivors of cancer still alive at the end of 2015 – excluding non-melanoma skin cancer – which is equivalent to 3.6% of the Irish population.

Dr Ryan said that with survival rates improving, the demands upon our already overstretched health service will inexorably increase, and more consultants will be needed to meet that need.

“In many specialties, Ireland has just one-third to a half the number of consultants on a per capita basis compared with the recommended international norms. This situation must be addressed urgently if patient care is to continue to improve,” added the IHCA President.

The National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) intends to carry out an interim assessment of staffing needs for cancer care at medical, nursing and all health and social care professional levels by mid-2018. This was described in the National Cancer Strategy as a ‘first step’ in developing a comprehensive workforce planning model for cancer in consultation with the Department of Health and other key stakeholders. The IHCA has urged the NCCP to expedite this assessment.

The IHCA has called for a definite target date to be set for implementation of the NCCP recommendation that consultant appointments for radiology, endoscopy and histopathology are made in conjunction with appointments in other disciplines such as surgery and medical oncology.