Could a review of cancer and diagnostics staffing and career pathways reverse waiting times?

13–16 MINS

By Skills for Health | 27 July 2022

NHS waiting times for cancer treatment and diagnosis in England are now the longest on record, with the Health and Social Care Committee publishing a report urging the government to take action or risk jeopardising patient care.

At the core of the issue is staffing.

The national shortage of nurses, including cancer nurses, is well known – a problem seemingly exacerbated by the pandemic, with a reported 170,000 NHS staff voluntarily leaving the service in the last two years.

Despite being brought into sharp focus most recently, there has, for some time, been mounting concern amongst healthcare leaders regarding staffing in cancer care, which is why a group of ten NHS trusts and cancer alliances across South East England have been collaborating on scalable strategies and solutions to overcome their workforce challenges.

In partnership with Skills for Health and Health Education England South East, these local NHS Trusts and Cancer Alliances are blazing a trail when it comes to opening up career pathways, finding new and smarter ways of working and streamlining patient journeys, with the aim of transforming cancer care and diagnostic services.

East Sussex Healthcare (ESHT) is one of the NHS Trusts in question and has been a pioneer in the creation of a range of new roles to support Consultants, Doctors, Nurses and Allied Health Professionals (AHPs) caring for patients on the cancer and diagnostics pathway.

Building upon their award-winning rollout of band 3 Doctors’ Assistants across the Trust, which cut the administrative burden of doctors in half, EHST have also developed other new roles to support cancer and diagnostic services.

Having experienced difficulties recruiting Endoscopy Nurses for its two endoscopy sites in Eastbourne and Hastings, ESHT took the decision to develop the band 3 Endoscopy Assistant role to work alongside an Endoscopist and ease the pressure on its Endoscopy Nurses.

The impact of this new role has enabled EHST to support cancer wait times, says Service Lead for Endoscopy Sue Winser.

“ESHT handles 21,800 cancer referrals, 283,000 X-rays and scans and 7 million pathology tests every year, including 14,500 endoscopy procedures, so the pressure is on.

“Easing the burden on existing staff is crucial in a tight labour market, where specialist skills are in short supply. Our pilot has reduced the need for two nurses being involved in any one procedure – this has massively freed up nursing time, enabling our team to see more patients.” she continued.

Also embracing new roles and routes into cancer care and diagnostics support is University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust (UHS).

With UHS’s pathology departments handling over 6 million clinical laboratory requests a year, it is hoped that by offering enhanced career progression the Trust will reap its rewards in terms of staff recruitment and retention in harder to recruit services.

Among the various different apprenticeship standards adopted by UHS, the new level 6 Healthcare Science Practitioner apprenticeship provides a platform to achieving the BSc in Biomedical Science and undertaking the role of band 5 Biomedical Scientist.

The threat of a mass shortage of cancer nurses including Cancer Nurse Specialists has similarly prompted a rethink of career progression routes by Thames Valley Cancer Alliance (TVCA).

Bringing together cancer leaders, commissioners, service providers and third sector organisations, TVCA takes a whole population approach to improving cancer services across the three Integrated Care Systems of Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and West Berkshire (BOB ICS), Bath & North East Somerset, Swindon and Wiltshire (BSW) and Frimley Health and Care ICS.

Key to the approach of TVCA has been to raise the visibility and awareness of careers in cancer. This includes the roles of band 5 nurses as well as of Cancer Nurse Specialist and the Nurse Consultant.

“Faced with an ageing workforce, we took the decision to create a visible cancer nursing (and Allied Health Professional) career progression route from pre-registration nurse through to registered, enhanced, advanced, consultant and strategic leadership to encourage specialisation in this vital field of healthcare.” said Lyndel Moore, Lead Cancer Nurse.

“We want to align to the national Aspirant Cancer Career and Education Development Programme (ACCEND) and in the interim we are supporting the development and training of the different roles for Allied Health Professionals and Cancer Nurse Specialists.’’

The Royal Berkshire Breast Cancer Service in Reading, which is part of TVCA, has seen patient numbers increase over the last five years. 555 patients were diagnosed with new primary breast cancer in 2021, and a further 211 patients with metastatic breast cancer are in the overall workload, meaning that a total of 1339 breast cancer patients are being monitored by the Centre’s follow-up pathway.

To meet this demand, the Centre conducted a review of the breast cancer pathway and the cancer nursing and other staffing requirements needed to support it.

The Nurse Consultant role was identified as being key in the pathway, and this advanced role, which is embedded in practice, enables care of the patient at an independent autonomous level.

With advanced clinical decision–making and a non-medical prescribing role, running independent chemotherapy and follow-up clinics, giving patients results and discussing treatment options, the Nurse Consultant plays an essential role against the backdrop of a national shortage of Oncologist Consultants.

Better use of resources coupled with clearer career progression routes has provided a platform for Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (also part of TVCA) to expand patient support by setting up a new ‘Personalised Care Service’ with the help of Macmillan Cancer Support.

The Service, launched in 2021, is designed to look holistically at the needs of cancer patients, enabling them to self-manage their illness better. The Service received 60 referrals in its first three months alone and is, according to Cancer Nurse Specialist Michelle Taylor of the Macmillan Personalised Care Team, proving highly beneficial in streamlining patient pathways.

“Some newly diagnosed cancer patients can feel overwhelmed and anxious about their diagnosis and pathway. The Cancer Nurse Specialist teams are now able to refer to the Personalised Care Service so we can all work together to help their needs and offer tailored support for improved health and wellbeing requirements.”

Staffing capacity to undertake diagnostic imaging (such as x-rays and scans) too is essential for patients on the cancer pathway and to meet demand for routine imaging.

With the challenges of an ageing workforce, Trusts in the Surrey and Sussex Cancer Alliance (SSCA) struggled to recruit both diagnostic and therapeutic radiographers, before deciding to take a fresh approach to workforce planning.

It was recognised that existing roles had a lack of career progression opportunities. This prompted the Sussex Imaging Transformation Workforce Group – representing services across the region – to facilitate a patient pathway-mapping workshop, which identified a shortfall in the workforce required to undertake routine, elective computerised tomography (CT) examinations.

As a result of this exercise, a competence map was developed with the aim of increasing the skill mix and consistency of roles to meet service needs. Furthermore, it identified the need for a career framework across the CT pathway and to support new roles across the diagnostic workforce, such as the Radiography Department Assistant as an entry point.

Dawn Probert is a Senior Consultant at Skills for Health and has been leading on the project along with Health Education England South East. She comments:

“Workforce planning is crucial to identifying and alleviating blockages in the system that delay diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients.

“Now more than ever, detailed skills analysis and robust workforce planning is required if cancer and diagnostic services as a whole are to meet patient demand in the medium to long-term.

“What this regional project has demonstrated is that there are many positive and transformational approaches and roles which have been developed and utilised to finding solutions to the recruitment, retention and training of the workforce to improve cancer patient journeys and diagnostic services.

“Designed to be scalable, they offer NHS trusts and cancer alliances nationwide innovative tools and strategies to get to grips with recruiting, retaining and developing staff and to meet the increasing demand for cancer and diagnostic services and improve patient care into the future.”

Regional Programme Manager for Cancer and Diagnostics at Health Education England South East Tessa Candy added:

“With 1 in 2 of us expected to develop cancer in our lifetime, the case for streamlining cancer care is clear.

“Through the optimised use of cancer and diagnostic staffing and the opening up of career pathways and new and revised roles, we empower the workforce to work smarter and support keeping up with patient demand, as well as improving recruitment and retention of staff in the long-term.

“As the individual case studies that have come out of this project demonstrate, workforce planning is a key component of improving cancer and diagnostic services and patient care so that it can keep up with growing demand.”

Skills for Health, in partnership with Health Education England South East, has developed 10 cancer and diagnostics workforce case studies and an accompanying Resource Guide to showcase the work of NHS trusts and cancer alliances across South East England. To find out more about the innovative tools and strategies they developed to help with recruiting, retaining and developing staff and to meet the increasing demand for cancer and diagnostic services click here.

Skills for Health are the leading authority in framework development, commissioned by national health bodies and government, guiding national occupational standards, competencies and capabilities frameworks, as well as making skills and training simple to navigate. Read here how our experts can work with you.


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