The United Kingdom’s National Health Service is failing cancer patients. That’s the grim conclusion of a new study published in the Lancet, a medical journal.
Researchers examined five-year survival rates for seven types of cancer in seven “high income” countries. The United Kingdom came in dead last in five of the categories—and near last in the other two.
These dismal results have a simple explanation. The National Health Service is woefully short on doctors, nurses, and other healthcare personnel. Long waits and poor care are the result.
These are the stark realities of any government-run healthcare system. If the United States implements Medicare for All, British-style rationing is sure to follow.
There are few places in the developed world worse for those with cancer than the United Kingdom, per the Lancet study. From 2010 to 2014, just 16% of patients diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus survived five years. Less than 8% of those with pancreatic cancer and 15% of those with lung cancer lived that long.
Those results can partly be attributed to the country’s shortage of cancer care providers. About one in ten diagnostic posts is vacant, according to 2018 data from Cancer Research UK, a research and awareness charity. By 2027, the government must add 1,700 radiologists to its workforce to accommodate demand. It must also hire over 1,800 oncologists and 2,000 therapeutic radiographers—professionals who administer radiotherapy to patients with cancer.
“We don’t have nearly enough radiologists in the UK right now,” noted Gils Maskell, Cancer Research UK’s radiology expert. “And far too many patients are waiting too long for scans and results.”
In some cases, hospitals are so strapped for resources that they’re getting rid of crucial cancer services. Last year, for example, a London hospital announced that it would nix chemotherapy because it had too few qualified nurses to continue providing it. One health official called it a “serious blow to patient care.”
As a result, patients experience dangerous treatment delays. Data from the NHS revealed that nearly 58,000 patients didn’t see a cancer specialist within two weeks of getting an “urgent” referral from their doctor between April and June 2019. More than 18,000 didn’t see a specialist within three weeks.
These delays often mean missing tumors at earlier stages, when patients have a better chance of survival. In 2017 alone, 115,000 cancer patients in England didn’t get a diagnosis until the cancer had already reached stage 3 or 4, according to a recent Cancer Research UK report.
The results are often tragic. For example, while more than 90% of patients with bowel cancer survive for at least five years if it’s detected at its earliest stage, only 10% do so if it’s not discovered until the latest stage.
The statistics are similar among women with breast cancer. Eighty percent of lung cancer patients will live five years if the disease is diagnosed early, compared to only 15% if it is discovered in its most advanced stage.
And then there’s the outright rationing. The NHS simply denies patients treatments if it decides that they’re not worth their price. In 2017, for example, the NHS’s “rationing bodies” decided to reject a drug that could have extended the lives of hundreds of women with breast cancer.
Cancer patients fare far better in the United States than in the United Kingdom, according to 2005-2009 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here, 89% of female patients diagnosed with breast cancer survived for at least five years. In the United Kingdom, only 81% did so. Among patients with colon cancer, 65% of Americans survived five years, compared to only 54% of Britons. And U.S. lung cancer patients were about twice as likely to survive five years as those in the United Kingdom.
These stark differences show that the last thing the United States should do is import government-run health care—if we care about saving the lives of cancer patients.