The impact of the government’s Cancer Plan is in question after a study found that patients living with cancer in deprived areas of the UK are more likely to have their disease diagnosed at a later stage than their more affluent counterparts.

Researchers from University College London looked at the number of National Health Service admissions in England for patients aged over 50 with colorectal, breast, or lung cancer – which together accounted for 64% of all cancer cases in 2006 – and analysed the number of those admitted as emergencies according to their sex, socioeconomic background, age, and date of admission.

They found that, despite implementation of the government’s Cancer Plan a decade ago, patients from poorer areas of the country - as well as older and female patients - were more likely to be admitted as emergency cases, indicating that their disease is being diagnosed at a later stage.

Moreover, the researchers said that the picture did not improve over the six years from 2000-2006, even though the government sunk a substantial £570 million into helping support the implementation of the Cancer Plan in the three years following its launch.

The NHS Cancer Plan was published in 2000 to reform of cancer services in England with the aim of slashing death rates and boosting both survival prospects and quality of life for cancer patients, by improving prevention, early detection of the disease and effective screening practice, and “guaranteeing high quality treatment and care throughout the country,” according to the Department of Health.

However, while improvements in overall survival rates and a reduction in waiting times have been achieved, the research indicates that patients from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds are missing out because their disease is not being picked up early enough, a crucial factor in survival.

“We know that survival rates vary across the country, particularly in deprived areas, so this is why the second annual report of the cancer reform strategy, published in December 2009, has deliberately focused on local variations so we can highlight to the NHS where they need to take action,” Health Secretary Andy Burnham told PharmaTimes UK News in a statement.

“I hope that the publication of this data combined with the Prime Minister's pledge to give patients key diagnostic tests within just one week of seeing their GP will save thousands more lives,” he added.

Call for service audit
The authors of the study, which was published in the British Medical Journal, conclude that addressing inequalities in survival across the nation is dependent on improving early diagnosis and referral, as well as applying evidence-based clinical guidelines in patients from deprived backgrounds. Consequently, they call for an “audit of local surgical practice and monitoring of sociodemographic variations in procedure” to help boost overall standards and “ensure best practice”.

But it seems the government is already working hard to address the inequalities issue. “We have set up the National Cancer Equality Initiative to tackle inequalities in cancer care,” a spokesperson for the Department of Health told PharmaTimes. “During 2009, the major focus of the Initiative was to understand the different factors contributing to inequalities, [and], from this work, we are developing plans and will be publishing a practical guide to reducing cancer inequalities early in 2010,” he said.