News round-up (9 February 2024)

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8th February 2024 about a 5 minute read

In the week that the King has been diagnosed with cancer, news emerges that the improvement in survival rates has slowed over the past few years, while patients who are faced with long NHS waiting lists are turning to the private sector for cancer treatment. The government, meanwhile, is tackling the crisis in NHS dentistry by offering lump sums to dentists willing to move to “dental deserts.” The patient safety commissioner has called for financial help for patients harmed by the drug sodium valproate and the pelvic mesh implant used to treat prolapse.

Improvement in cancer survival rates slowing down

The rate of improvement in cancer survival rates has slowed, according to a study from Cancer Research UK.

The charity’s report says that the rate of improvement was five times faster in the 2000s than in the 2010s, and blames insufficient funding for research.

The report also says that the likelihood of surviving a decade or more with cancer in the UK is the highest it has ever been, rising from 47.9% in 2010-11 to 49.8% in 2018. In the 1980s, the survival rate was 24%.

According to the study, screening programmes for breast, bowel and cervical cancer have saved more than 5,000 lives a year.

Research has also led to improvements in prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, but the report estimates that unless government spending levels for research are maintained over the next 10 years, there will be a funding shortfall of more than £1bn.

Mesh and sodium valproate victims need payouts soon, report says

Families of children left disabled by the epilepsy drug sodium valproate, and women injured by pelvic mesh implants, should be given financial help as a matter of urgency, according to Dr Henrietta Hughes, England’s patient safety commissioner.

Hughes’s comments follow a review that found some people’s lives had been ruined because concerns about the treatments were not listened to.

Sodium valproate, an epilepsy drug, can cause major birth defects if taken during pregnancy, but for many decades women were not warned about the risks and an estimated 20,000 children were exposed to the drug while in the womb. As a result, some now have neurodevelopmental disorders.

Pelvic mesh implants, used to treat incontinence and prolapse in women, have in some cases, cut through tissue and caused women serious pain. Thousands have experienced life-changing complications and lost their mobility, relationships and jobs.

Doctors warn of freebirthing dangers

Doctors and NHS hospital leaders have warned of the dangers of “freebirthing” – that is, giving birth without medical assistance.

New figures show an increase in the proportion of babies born at home, from 2.1 per cent of all births between 2016 and 2019, to 2.5 per cent in 2021. It is not known, however, how many of these home births involved a midwife, and how many did not.

The Royal College of Midwives said that “midwives are understandably concerned about women giving birth at home without assistance, as it brings with it increased risks to both the mother and baby”.

The Nursing and Midwifery Council, which regulates midwifery, said that it was in the “early stages of collaboration” with colleagues to understand concerns about freebirthing and what steps organisations should take.

Dentists to be paid £20k to move to ‘dental deserts’

Some dentists will be offered up to £20,000 to move to rural areas where there is a shortage of NHS appointments, the NHS has announced.

The payment will be offered to 240 dentists if they agree to relocate to “dental deserts” where patients cannot access care.

Under the plans, dentists will also be paid up to £50 for every NHS patient they see who has not had an appointment within the last two years. New figures suggest that 30m people in England fall into this category – more than half the population.

Patients will be required to pay more for a check-up, with the minimum price increasing from £23 to £28 unless they are exempt.

Currently there are about  2,300 people  for every dentist in England, but distribution is uneven. This week, when a new dental practice offering NHS appointments opened in Bristol, hundreds of people queued outside the practice in the hope of seeing a dentist.

Frailty in older people increased during austerity years, study finds

Financial cuts made to the NHS, public health and social care in the austerity years led to an increase in frailty amongst older people, a study has found.

The coalition government’s austerity programme in the early 2010s is associated with steeper increases in age-related compared with the years between 2002 and 2010, the University of Edinburgh study shows. Frailty is characterised by issues such as reduced muscle strength and fatigue.

The researchers analysed data on the frailty index, which captures age-related declines in functional ability and physical and mental health. The analysis included more than 16,000 people enrolled in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing 2002-2018, with an average age of 67.

They found that frailty index scores increased more rapidly with age after the implementation of austerity policies. This was the case for all population groups, but was particularly marked for the oldest people in England.

Big increase in UK cancer patients going private

Hundreds of thousands of cancer patients are paying for private treatment, according to new figures.

Between 2018 and 2023, 282,560 people funded chemotherapy treatments through insurance, according to the Private Healthcare Information Network (PHIN), an independent information service about private health care. A further 13,900 paid for their own chemotherapy, the data shows. The PHIN was unable to provide figures for people paying to undergo cancer surgery, radiotherapy or other forms of private cancer treatment however.

The proportion of patients in England who wait less than 62 days from an urgent suspected cancer referral or consultant upgrade to their first treatment for cancer is 65.2%, according to the most recent NHS figures. The target is 85%.

The figures, for November, show that 90% of people receive treatment within 31 days of their cancer being found and a decision being made to treat them, below the 96% target.