NHS Blood Cancer Care

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:38 pm on 17th January 2018.

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Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 3:38 pm, 17th January 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson—I believe it is the first time that we have danced in such a way. I congratulate my hon. Friend Henry Smith on securing this debate on an issue that I know he feels passionately about, and I commend him for his work chairing the all-party group. We all come to the House with our motivations and experiences, and we all gather more experiences in the House. One reason why this is the job that I always wanted to do in government is because I have fought many types of cancer in many different ways, and lost more than I have won. It is always moving to hear Members speak personally about their experiences and why they have promoted certain issues in their parliamentary career, and I thought my hon. Friend did that brilliantly. Such experiences make us the MPs that we are, and I hope only that the figures for the people watching this Westminster Hall debate match those for people watching daytime television shows instead, because I think they would have a great view of the way that Parliament operates.

Let me start by saying that the Government, and this Minister more than ever, are absolutely committed to transforming cancer services across England, and we take an all-cancer approach to doing so. It is true that cancer survival rates have never been higher, but we want cancer services in England to be the best in the world. We want to ensure that every patient, regardless of the type of cancer that they unfortunately get, has access to the treatment, the services and the support that give them the best possible chance of a successful clinical outcome and a successful recovery back into their lives, which are temporarily paused while they go through treatment.

Shortly after this debate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley advertised very well, the all-party parliamentary group will publish its first report. Having chaired the all-party parliamentary group on breast cancer with the shadow Minister for many years—and for a bit with Dr Whitford—and produced all-party parliamentary group reports, I know how much work goes into them and how important they are. My hon. Friend should know that they are noticed by Ministers—they are certainly noticed by this Minister. I have here the copy he kindly shared with me. I think it is an excellent and informed piece of work and I congratulate him and the charities that supported him through the secretariat. I assure him that the Government and NHS England will take careful notice of its findings and recommendations. As I always do when I speak in response to the launch of a report, I will see that he gets a response in writing to the recommendations that he has made, in addition to what I will say in today’s response.

The report highlights that someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer every 14 minutes. Nearly 250,000 people are living with blood cancer in the UK today, and it claims more lives than breast or prostate cancer. It is the third biggest cancer killer in our country, so this debate is as timely as it is important. I am pleased to say that many of the recommendations in this report mirror the strategic priorities set out in the cancer strategy for England, which outlines how we will implement all of the 96 recommendations of the independent cancer taskforce, chaired by Sir Harpal Kumar of Cancer Research UK, who will shortly step down from that role. What a loss that will be. I wish him well. I hope I can therefore assure my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that two years into the implementation of the strategy, we are already making significant progress in implementing the recommendations of the APPG report.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley stated where we must start—a point also made by my hon. Friend John Howell—and that is early diagnosis. We all know that this is key for all cancers and it gives the best possible chance of successful treatment. To improve early diagnosis, the Government made £200 million available to cancer alliances in December 2016 to encourage new ways to diagnose cancer earlier, improve the care for those living with it and ensure that each cancer patient gets the right care for them. The APPG report highlights that early diagnosis of blood cancers is difficult—we have heard different contributions as to why that is—as symptoms such as tiredness or back pain, are often misdiagnosed. My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley mentioned that his mother presented with flu-like symptoms, which maybe threw them off the scent a bit in the early days. That is why, for suspected blood cancers, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence published a revised guideline in 2015, which clearly sets out that GPs should consider a very urgent full blood count within 48 hours to assess for leukaemia, if adults present with suspicious symptoms. I am very sure that there is more that we can do around education in primary care, but I think that was a positive move from NICE.

Further, I must here mention the accelerate, coordinate and evaluate programme—ACE for short. It is a unique early diagnosis initiative, and a programme of 60 projects exploring innovative concepts across England. The programme is testing a new multidisciplinary diagnostic centre approach to diagnosing patients with vague or unclear but concerning symptoms, often characteristic of hard to diagnose cancers such as blood cancers. There are ten pilot MDCs across five areas of the country. They are one-stop shops that can ensure patients rapidly receive a suite of tests, reducing the risk that patients bounce around services receiving multiple different referrals for the same problem, having to start that explanation all over again—I know that is incredibly difficult—and do not get that all-important early diagnosis. We know that early analysis of these schemes is very positive and many patients can receive a diagnosis or the all-clear within just 24 hours. I look forward to seeing further analysis of these pilots when that is available and I very much hope that MDCs can become an important tool in helping us to identify blood cancers earlier. We have the new 28-day faster diagnosis standard coming down the track. I always say that 28 days is not a target, it is an end point. If we can beat it and do it in 28 hours, happy days.

Patient experience when it comes to cancer is clearly so important. The APPG’s report also rightly highlights the importance of that. Improving patient experience is one of the six strategic priorities set out in the cancer strategy, and cancer patients are receiving better and more effective care, we believe. We are committed to ensuring that this improvement continues. In 2016, NHS England surveyed just over 118,000 people through the national cancer patient experience survey, which I am committed to continuing in one form or another, because I know how important it is. Over 70,000 cancer patients took part in the latest survey. I am very grateful to all of them for giving us their feedback to help to improve the experiences of cancer patients in the future. This feedback is vital to inform and shape the way hospital trusts and clinical commissioning groups achieve further improvements for patients. The Cancer Vanguard has also developed an innovative cancer patient feedback system which is now being used by many organisations that provide cancer care in our country. This new system collects real-time patient feedback at key points in the patient care pathway, which we have heard mentioned today, so that it can be fed back and used by those redesigning services to put patient experience at the heart of improvements in service.

Linked to this point about patient experience is access to a cancer nurse specialist. My hon. Friend made the important point in his opening remarks that access to a CNS can make a hugely positive difference to the treatment experience of patients with blood cancer. Health Education England’s first ever cancer workforce plan clearly stated that we will ensure that every patient has access to a CNS or other support worker by 2021, and if we can do it sooner we will. We will do this by developing national competencies and a clear route into training.

I thank my hon. Friend and others for their tributes to Macmillan Cancer Support. I have been to Southampton General Hospital—my neighbour, Royston Smith, was here earlier—to visit the acute oncology centre, which is a partnership between the University Hospital Southampton NHS Trust and Macmillan, and a brilliant centre it is too. I met patients undergoing treatment for blood cancers. It was not a planned visit, but it was timely, given this debate. Macmillan—a brilliant charity—is also currently carrying out a specialist audit to understand the current size and location of the specialist cancer nurse workforce. This will enable us in the Department and NHS England to develop a much more comprehensive picture of how many specialist nurses are working in cancer and what further action and investment might be required to ensure timely and good quality patient care and experience in line with the target that I have set out. Once we have this data, I hope in the spring, we will publish an additional chapter to the cancer workforce plan, and consider the actions needed to support and enhance the wider nursing contribution to cancer.

My hon. Friend Colin Clark spoke of workforce shortages north of the border. It is a familiar tale. We both face a cancer workforce challenge, which is why HEE produced our cancer workforce plan. It is a significant challenge to the NHS and cancer care, but one that we are absolutely determined to meet head-on and to beat.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley and other hon. Members made points about living with and living beyond cancer. I take the point made by the shadow Minister about that term. Obviously the cancer strategy is as published, but in time it will be refreshed, and I take on board the point, which she made well. More than ever, thanks to innovations in treatment there can be a full life beyond a cancer diagnosis. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire reminded us really well about the C-word. It did used to be the big C. It used to be a terror, and still is for many, but so many people now have a full life beyond a cancer diagnosis.