Monday, April 05, 2010

The latest political football that misses the point

How unedifying it is to see the two main parties fall over themselves by using "cancer" as a political football. In one corner we have Labour and their silly guarantee to have tests and results back within a week (a highly useful thing for someone that needs to have radioisotope scans set at least a week apart along with say an MRI, a CT and a 24 hour urine test).

And what is the position if you don't support this guarantee, or there guarantee to see a specialist within two weeks of GP referral? Well its obvious, you want to kill people with cancer and you're evil.

Now shoot across the Commons benches to the Tories, they're promising to end the well documented idiocy that sees the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) refuse to allocate treatment and drugs on the basis of cost and effectively manage a postcode lottery for post-surgical cancer treatments (something Macmillan agrees is needed). However, they want, it seems, another quango especially for cancer to deal with this.

If you don't support this then the position is rather obvious, you clearly don't want cancer patient to get the treatment they deserve and you're evil. Such an argument of course is well anticipated so the Tory proposals simply get cast aside as a pet project against cancer.

Isn't it such a wonderful and charming thing to witness? Two sides in a political argument battling it out by kicking around the football of cancer to see who can convince the proles most effectively that they'll save more lives whilst the other side wants to see lives lost?

The thing is, guarantees might sound rather nice, but what happens when they're not met? Let's not be under some false reality here that they are met 100% of the time. The answer is not very much. Likewise, whilst it should be the case to have access to all available treatments it's only a part of a much larger whole that needs to be fixed, reform of NICE alone is not enough.

The problem with cancer treatment in the UK is not the surgery, or the speed with which you get seen initially, or in many cases accept rare cancers the drugs available. Its the post-surgical aftercare system that patients find themselves in. It is not a patient-focused system. It takes no account of the specific differences between each person.

There is a one-size fits all approach to follow-up, and the evidence organisations such as Macmillan have found, is that this approach means that recurrence is often not spotted soon enough, it tends to happen between follow-up appointments. The system may be fast when you first go into it, but once you're there it becomes horrendously slow.

Instead of politicking with cancer and playing the "we'll save more lives" game, both sides should stop and take a long hard look at the system that cancer patients have to deal with after they've been treated initially and make sure that you can get back into the system with the speed you can initially.

It's all well and good to say "oh you'll see a specialist in two weeks maximum" but you're still going to find the follow-up treatment slower than a tortoise on tamazepan. You also remain at greater risk of recurrence causing complications because after-care is so slow.

What's more, if you're unfortunate enough to be nearing the end of your life, the system puts far too much concentration in hospital admission when it isn't necessary. The cost of admitting people to hospital when they could be treated at home is immense. If we redirected resources to help people living with cancer in their homes we'd save, quite literally, millions that could be used elsewhere.

Yet instead we have to listen to silly guarantees, which in some cases simply cannot be met because tests take more than a week to do properly; or we hear about new quangos that will make sure lots of drugs are available - the principle of availabilty is correct but the delivery method ain't.

We get told all these things as they boast about how many lives they'll save with the quiet implication that the failure of the other side supports means they want to kill people. The real losers are the poor bastards in the completely broken post-treatment system though, because that is where the really big problems occur - but you need a diviing line right, there's an election coming!

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