UK cancer care lags that of other European nations: reasons and solutions - Part 1

  • International study shows that while British cancer survival has improved over the past 20 years the UK’s cancer survival rates lag behind the European average in 9 out of 10 cancers
  • 10,000 cancer deaths could be prevented each year if the UK hit the European average
  • Analysis shows that some British cancer survival rates trail that of developing nations such as Jordan, Puerto Rico, Algeria and Ecuador
  • Since the inception of the NHS in 1948 policy makers and clinicians have viewed the problem as the NHS being under staffed and underfunded
  • But the answers to the cancer care challenge in the UK are not that straight forward
  • The world has changed and is changing while policy responses to challenges have remained static
UK cancer care lags that of other European nations: reasons and solutions
Part 1


This Commentary is in 2 parts
Part 1 focusses on cancer care in the UK, but much of its substance is relevant to other advanced nations with aging populations and large and escalating incidence rates and costs of cancer. Before drilling down into cancer care in Britain we briefly describe the etiology of cancer, the epidemiology of the condition as it relates to the UK and other wealthy nations, mention immunotherapy as indicative of evolving and significant new therapies, which give hope to cancer sufferers. We then describe the CONCORD-3 study reported in The Lancet in 2018. This is a highly regarded and significant international study, whose findings are widely recognised as the “gold standard” of comparative cancer care. It reports that although 5-year cancer survival rates (the internationally accepted indicator of cancer care) have improved in Britain over the past 2 decades, the UK is still trailing that of most large European countries. We conclude Part 1 with a brief description of UK initiatives to close its cancer-gap with other European countries.
Part 2, which will be published in 2 weeks, is an analysis of the cancer-gap between Britain and other European countries. We suggest that for decades, healthcare providers, policy makers and leading clinicians have suggested that the UK cancer-care gap is because of the lack of funding and the lack of healthcare professionals. Since the inception of the NHS in 1948 a policy mantra of “more” has taken root among policy makers, providers and clinicians: predominantly, “more money”, “more staff”, and “the government should do more”. We suggest that, over the lifetime of NHS England, a combination of Britain’s economic growth, its historical ties with Commonwealth countries and, since 1973, the reduction of barriers to the flow of labour between European countries, has given UK policy makers a convenient “get-out-of-jail-card” because they could always provide more money and more staff. Over the past 2 decades, this option has become less and less effective because of a combination of the slowdown of world economic growth, the rise of emerging economies such as India, and more recently Brexit.
We conclude with some thoughts about why a significant cancer care gap has opened between the UK and other European nations, and briefly describe some UK initiatives to close the gap. We suggest that the world has changed quicker than the thinking of policy makers and quicker than structural changes in the UK’s healthcare system. Improving cancer care in the Britain will require more than inertia projects. It will require more innovation, more long-term planning, more courage from policy makers, more focus on actual patients’ needs rather than what we are simply able to provide. Since 1948, the healthcare baton in the UK has been with an establishment comprised of policy makers, providers and leading clinicians. Over the past 70 years this establishment has become increasingly entrenched in past and narrow policy solutions. It has failed because the world has changed while It has remained static. It is time that the healthcare baton is passed to people with less self-interest at stake, who are less wedded to the past, and understand the new and rapidly evolving global healthcare ecosystem.

The UK’s cancer challenge

While British policy makers and health providers appear keen to stress that trends in the 5-year cancer survival rates (the internationally accepted measure for progress against cancer) have improved over the past 20 years, there is an element of “economy with the truth” in what they say. The UK is being left behind by significant advances in cancer survival rates in other nations. Treatment for 3.7m UK cancer patients diagnosed since 2000 is struggling to progress, especially for people diagnosed with brain, stomach and blood cancers. Further, your chances of dying after being diagnosed with prostate, pancreatic and lung cancer in Britain is significantly higher than in any other large European nation. This is according to CONCORD-3, the largest ever international cancer study reported in the January 2018 edition of the The Lancet.

The emperor of all maladies
Cancer is the uncontrolled proliferation of cells. In his 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning book, ‘The Emperor of All MaladiesSiddhartha Mukherjee, professor of oncology at Columbia University Medical School in New York describes cancer cells as, "bloated and grotesque, with a dilated nucleus and a thin rim of cytoplasm, the sign of a cell whose very soul has been co-opted to divide and to keep dividing with pathological, monomaniacal purpose." Cancer occurs when a cell starts to divide repeatedly, producing abnormal copies of itself, rather than dividing occasionally just to replace worn out cells. If the immune system fails to destroy these cells, they continue to reproduce and invade and destroy surrounding healthy tissue. A number of forces can trigger these cell divisions, such as certain chemicals (carcinogens), chronic inflammation, hormones, lack of exercise, obesity, radiation, smoking, and viruses. ‘The emperor of all maladies’ is not just one disease. There are over 200 different types of cancer, each with its own methods of diagnosis and treatment. Most cancers are named after the organ or type of cell in which they start: for example, cancer that begins in the breast is called breast cancer. Cancer sometimes begins in one part of the body and can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems This process is known as metastasis.
A practitioners’ views

According to Whitfield Growdon, an oncological surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Professor of Obstetrics, Gynaecology and Reproductive Biology at the Harvard University Medical School, Cancer is a complicated set of events, which can happen in any cell in your body. Your body is comprised of tiny cells, which have the ability to grow, stop growing and to re-model, which is necessary to do all the functions that are required for living. But every cell in nature has the potential to lose control of its growth. It is this uncontrolled growth of an individual cell, which we call cancer. Cells can grow, they can spread, and if the cell growth is uncontrolled it can invade other tissues, which can lead to you losing the ability to perform vital functions that are required for your life,” see video below:

There is scarcely a family in the developed world unaffected by cancer. But, this has not always been the case. Cancer only became a leading cause of death when we began to live long enough to get it. In 1911, the prevalence of cancer was low compared to what it is today. Then life expectancy in the UK was 51.5 and 52.2 years for males and females respectively. Similarly, in the US, at the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy at birth was 47.3 years. Today, the median life expectancy in the UK is 81.6 and in the US 78.7.  Significantly, the age at diagnosis for prostate cancer today is 67 and 61 for breast cancer. Approximately 12% of the UK population are aged 70 and above and account for 50.2% of the total cancers registered in 2014. 87% of all cancers in the US are diagnosed in people over 50.
Late diagnoses
Every 2 minutes in Britain someone is diagnosed with cancer, and almost 50% of these are diagnosed at a late stage. Every year in the UK there are more than 360,000 new cancer cases, which equates to nearly 990 newly diagnosed cancers every day. Taking a closer look at the UK data, we notice that since the early 1990s, incidence rates for all cancers combined have increased by 12%. The increase is larger in females than males. Over the past decade, incidence rates for all cancers combined have increased by 7%, with a larger increase in females: 8% as opposed to 3% in males. Over the next 2 decades, incidence rates for all cancers combined in Britain are projected to rise by 2%. Incidence rates in the UK are lower than in most European nations in males, but higher in females.

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Incidence rates of specific cancers in the UK

In 2015, breast, prostate, lung and bowel cancers together account for some 53% of all new cancer cases in the UK. Over the past decade, thyroid and liver cancers have shown the fastest increases in incidence in both males and females.  Incidence rates of melanoma, small intestine, and kidney cancers have also increased markedly in males over the past 10 years. Over the same period, Incidence rates of kidney, melanoma, and head and neck cancers have also increased markedly in females. Despite the rise in incidence rates, in recent years mortality rates from cancer in England and Wales have fallen. Between 1994 and 2013, mortality rates from cancer for males and females fell by 30% and 22% respectively.
New therapies: immunotherapy/biologics
What gives hope to people living with cancer is partly new and innovative therapies. Over the past few decades immunotherapy, also called biological therapy, is an evolving treatment, which has become a significant part of the management of certain cancers. Immunotherapy is any form of treatment that uses the body's natural abilities that constitute the immune system to fight infection and disease or to protect the body from some of the side effects of treatment. This may be achieved either by stimulating your own immune system to attack cancer cells specifically, or by giving your immune system components to boost your body’s immune system in a general way. Immunotherapy works better for some types of cancer than for others. It is used by itself for some cancers, but for others it seems to work better when used with other types of therapy.

According to Hani Gabra, Professor of Medical Oncology at Imperial College, London, and Chief Physician Scientist and Head of the Oncology Discovery Unit at AstraZeneca, UK, “Biological therapies are treatments gaining importance globally as we progress with the management of cancer. Understanding the biology of cancer has enabled us to understand the targets that go wrong in those cancers. We have successfully used many treatments that hit directly those cancer targets in order to inhibit or “switch-off” the cancers. These biological therapies either can be useful on their own or more commonly, combined with standard treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy.” See video below:

Why is the CONCORD-3 study significant?

CONCORD-3 reported in a 2018 edition of The Lancet is an international scientific collaboration designed to monitor trends in the survival of cancer patients throughout the world, and involves 600 investigators in over 300 institutions in 71 countries. The study compares the overall effectiveness of health systems to provide care for 18 cancer types, which collectively represent 75% of all cancers diagnosed worldwide. The study is specifically designed to: (i) monitor trends in the survival rates of cancer patients world-wide to 2014, (ii) inform national and global policy on cancer control, and (iii) enable a comparative evaluation of the effectiveness of health systems in providing cancer care. The study is the third of its kind and supports the over-arching goal of the 2013 World Cancer Declaration, to achieve “major reductions in premature deaths from cancer, and improvements in quality of life and cancer survival”.
CONCORD’s evidence base
The evidence base of the CONCORD-3 study is significant and is predicated upon the clinical records of 37.5m patients diagnosed with cancer between 2000 and 2014. Data are provided in over 4,700 data sets by 322 population-based cancer registries from 71 countries and territories; 47 of which provided data with 100% population coverage. The analysis is centralised, based upon tight protocols and standardised quality controls, and employs cutting-edge methods. The 71 participating countries and territories are home to a combined population of 4.9bn (UN figures for 2014). This represents 67% of the world's population (7.3bn). The 322 participating cancer registries contributed data on all cancer patients diagnosed among their combined resident populations of almost 1bn people (989m), which is 20% of the combined population of those countries. CONCORD-3 contributes to the evidence base for global policy on cancer management and control.
CONCORD-3 data base drives national and global policies on cancer control

Despite the care taken of the data management processes, no study is perfect, and It is reasonable to assume that a study the size of CONCORD-3 will have weaknesses. Notwithstanding, the study is “best in class” and its results are comparable within the limits of data quality. The international trends in cancer patient survival reported in the study reflect the comparative effectiveness of health systems in managing cancer patients. The findings of CONCORD-3 form part of the evidence that drives national and international policies on cancer control. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency use the findings in its campaign to highlight global inequalities in cancer survival. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OEDC) use the results of CONCORD as indicators of the quality of healthcare in 48 countries in its Health at a Glance publications, and the European Union use the findings in its Country Health Profiles for EU Member States.
Overall cancer survival is improving

Overall findings of the CONCORD-3 study suggest that the prospects for cancer patients are improving throughout the world and survival rates are increasing for some lethal cancers. Several cancers show significant increases in 5-year survival, including breast (80% to 86%), prostate (82% to 89%), rectum (55% to 63%) and colon (52% to 60%); reflecting better cancer management. Notwithstanding, there are significant differences in cancer outcomes between nations.
UK has worse cancer survival rates compared with other European nations

Despite the fact that increasingly more people are surviving cancer, British adult cancer patients continue to have worse survival rates after 5 years compared to the European average in 9 out of 10 cancers. Research comparing 29 countries shows survival rates in Sweden are almost 33% higher than in the UK. For ovarian cancer, which affects 7,400 British women each year, the UK comes 45th out of 59, with only 36.2% sufferers surviving 5 years. Some countries achieve nearly double this survival rate. When the largest 5 European countries - Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain - were compared for the 3 most common cancers, Britain came bottom for 2 of them. Britain’s survival rates were worse than the other 4 European nations for lung and prostate cancer, and second worst for breast cancer. With regard to pancreatic cancer British patients had just a 6.8% chance of survival, compared to 7.7% in Spain, 8.6% in France, 9.2% in Italy and 10.7% in Germany. This puts the UK 47th out of the 56 countries that had full data for this cancer. Studies suggest 10,000 deaths could be prevented each year if the UK were to keep up with the European average. The UK only exceeds the European average in melanoma. See table below.

Here we have introduced and described the findings of CONCORD-3, which suggests the UK lags significantly other European nations with regard to cancer survival rates.  This sets the scene for part 2 of this Commentary, which will briefly describe some of the UK’s cancer initiatives to reduce premature death from cancer and enhance the care of people living with the disorder. Much has been achieved and over the past 2 decades, cancer mortality rates in the UK have been significantly reduced. Notwithstanding, more innovative and effective policies, which address the actual needs of patients rather than provide “more money and more staff” will be required if the UK is to reduce the cancer-care gap.