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NHS laboratories testing patient samples for cancer are struggling to cope with an ever-increasing workload, national charity Cancer Research UK has warned.

In a new report entitled “Testing Times to Come: an evaluation of pathology services across the UK”, it says that labs are at “tipping point” and desperately need more support.

A growing and ageing population means that more people than ever before are being referred for medical tests for cancer, including biopsies and blood tests carried out by NHS pathology labs. Latest figures show that one in two people will develop some form of cancer at some point in their life.

But, warns the charity, the number of pathology staff to carry out the vital tests is not rising to meet the growing demand for them, resulting in a lack of capacity in the pathology service. It means patients could have to wait longer for a diagnosis, increasing their stress and potentially delaying their treatment. Similar problems have been seen in the rising demand for other types of cancer tests, including scans and endoscopies.

Emma Greenwood, Cancer Research UK’s director of policy, said: “Diagnostic services, including pathology, urgently need support and investment to ensure that diagnoses aren’t delayed and patients benefit from the latest treatment.

“The UK’s cancer survival is lagging behind other European countries and improving early diagnosis through diagnostic services is one of the ways to address this. The diagnostic bottleneck will only get worse without action now and this involves addressing staff shortages in imaging, endoscopy and pathology.”

As the number of new cancer cases continues to rise, the demand of diagnostic tests will only grow. It is known that detecting and treating cancer at an early stage significantly increases the likelihood of success, so a prompt and efficient testing service is a crucial step in this process.

Professor Manuel Salto-Tellez, a Cancer Research UK pathology expert, said: “We need to act now before this situation gets worse. It’s vital that patients are diagnosed at an early stage when treatment is more likely to be successful and pathology plays a crucial role in this.

“The number of cancer cases diagnosed each year is set to rise and the already stretched pathology services won’t cope unless we ensure more people are trained and employed in pathology. We must also make sure that existing staff have the support they need to do their job.”

Up to 70% of healthcare decisions taken in the NHS involve pathology-based tests and investigations, and the concerns highlighted by the new report are not limited solely to cancer patients.

The report recommends immediate action to address current and projected workforce shortfalls in the pathology service, with incentives for more people to train in pathology and other diagnostic disciplines. It says in particular that the Royal College of Pathologists should look at new ways of attracting people to train in pathology.

Responding to the report, the Government says it is continuing to invest in cancer services, including measures to ensure it has the right number and mix of staff to ensure prompt and accurate diagnoses. A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “Early and fast diagnosis is crucial in improving patient outcomes and experience. Getting pathology test results to patients quickly is a key part of this. That's why we have invested over £2.5bn on efficient and robust pathology services across the NHS."

However, 20 of the 36 labs surveyed for the Cancer Research UK report had at last one unfilled full-time equivalent vacancy among consultant staff, and 13 had had the vacancies for six months or longer. Looking ahead, another concern is that a significant proportion of the pathology service workforce is nearing retirement age, without enough new graduates coming through to fill the void. Cancer Research UK predicts that in the next five to 10 years there will be a shortage of consultants across all areas of pathology in the UK.

• Cancer Research UK provides a wide range of advice, information and support on all aspects of cancer and its diagnosis and treatment, as well as funding vital research directed at beating all types of cancer. For more about the charity and its work, visit its website by clicking here or if you have questions about cancer you can speak to a specialist nurse by calling 0808 800 4040 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm). 

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