A British inquiry into the use of chemotherapy to treat seriously ill cancer patients has found the treatment caused or hastened death in 27% of cases.

The report, by the National Confidential Enquiry into Patient Outcome and Death, has concerned experts in the field and prompted Cancer tsar Mike Richards to announce early the findings in the National Chemotherapy Advisory Group report on how to improve care. He has called for the reports to be considered “urgently”.

The NCEPOD inquiry investigated more than 600 deaths within 30 days of receiving chemotherapy either as a cancer treatment or as palliative care to lessen the symptoms.

Results showed 43% of patients suffered significant treatment-related toxicity despite receiving other treatment to reduce the chemotherapy side effects.

Inquiry advisers believe more than one in four of the patients died from these side effects rather than from the cancer – a concern when 14% of patients were taking the treatment to cure them of cancer.

In fact, the inquiry concluded that 19% of those who died should not have been receiving the treatment at all.

The inquiry also found that treatment could have been better in nearly 50% of the cases and the care was less than satisfactory in 8% of cases.

Tom Treasure, NCEPOD Chairman, said that while the study was “skewed” to pinpoint the worst cases, the study did ask some “difficult questions and found some unpalatable answers about decisions made in the weeks before [the patients] died”.

“These merit careful consideration,” he said.

The report’s advisors believed the care was below an acceptable standard and warned doctors should take more care when giving the treatment.

The advisors recommended that junior medical staff should not authorise chemotherapy, doses of the drug should be reduced for the seriously ill, patients should be given more information on the treatment, and hospitals needed to have the resources to deal with chemotherapy toxicity.