National Cancer Director Professor Mike Richards has played down GP concerns that nationwide cancer networks are under threat under the government's plans for the National Health Service.

Some medical professionals fear that England's 28 cancer networks - which provide expert advice to GPs - could be facing the axe after the government's recently published cancer strategy suggested that once the new commissioning arrangements are in place it will be up to consortia to decide where to get advice and support from. 

According to Ciarán Devane, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, without cancer networks "GPs will find it impossible to do their new role". NFP research has shown that just 8% of GPs have a specialism or a particular interest in cancer, compared with 25% for diabetes and 16% for mental health, and "with such a low starting point for specialist knowledge, commissioning for cancer is likely to be very challenging for GPs", he noted.

But speaking at a live webcast - Improving Outcomes: A Strategy for Cancer - screened by, Prof Richards stressed that it has not been ruled that cancer networks are up for the chop. 

The government has secured funding for cancer networks for one year, during which time discussions will be held with GP commissioning consortia and the NHS Commissioning Board on their future, and "my feeling is that cancer networks will stay", he explained.

Expert opinion

The nature of questions submitted by doctors during the webcast indicate there is still much confusion over aspects of GP commissioning, particularly with regard to complex cancer referrals and patient care.

Clare Gerada, Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said that rather than trying to become experts themselves commissioning consortia should get in the right help and ask specialists for help with purchasing decisions. "Success in GP commissioning is dependent on improving the clinical dialogue between specialists and GPs", or we risk harming patient care", she stressed.

A recent poll of GPs commissioned by the RCGP showed that support for GP commissioning is shakey, with 51.9% and 43.4% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing that the new system will create a patient-led NHS and improve healthcare outcomes, respectively.