Clinical networks that have driven dramatic improvements in the care of patients with cancer, stroke and heart conditions have seen significant cuts in both their budgets and staffing levels, according to a survey by Labour.

Labour claims that its survey has revealed that, contrary to continued promises by the coalition government, funding for cancer networks has been cut by a quarter since 2009/10, while stroke and heart networks have seen their budgets trimmed by 12%.

This, in tandem with current NHS reform, "is forcing many of these groups of local specialists to cut their workforce, reduce existing and future projects to improve patient care, and reject additional grants from charities as they are unable to make commitments into 2013/14," Labour has warned.

"Ministers have repeatedly promised to protect the funding for clinical networks. Yet these figures clearly show this is another in the long list of this Government’s broken promises on the NHS," commented Liz Kendall, Shadow Minister for Care and Older People.

Stressing the importance of clinical networks, Professor Sir Roger Boyle CBE, former National Director for Heart Disease and Stroke and currently Director of the National Centre for Cardiovascular Prevention and Outcomes at University College London, said they have been "instrumental" in bringing about "dramatic improvements" in the care of patients with heart disease and stroke over the last decade.

"They have helped bring about a staggering 50% reduction in death rates from two of our big killers, heart disease and stroke," he said.

Cancer networks have also been "a central component of the improvements in cancer services in England over the last 10-15 years", said Mick Peake, Consultant Respiratory Physician and National Clinical Lead for NHS Cancer Improvement and the National Cancer Intelligence Network.

"I am worried that in the process of reorganisation of the networks there is a possibility that we will lose many expert and very committed individuals, and that this could impact on the quality of commissioning of cancer services in the future," he stressed.

Single operating system from next year

April 2013 will see the introduction of a single operating framework for clinical networks, bringing together management support and clinical leadership for mental health, neurological conditions, maternity and children, cancer and cardiovascular services. 

The NHS Commissioning Board has promised funding of £42 million (compared to the current £33 million) to help these new networks boost quality and consistency in treating these conditions across the nation.

”By working over the larger populations covered by senates Strategic Clinical Networks will be able to implement high cost, specialist treatments quickly," the NHSCB said.

And in an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Health insisted that funding has not been cut, stressing that £33 million has invested each year since 2009 in cancer, cardiac and stroke networks.

"Over the last decade clinical networks have been vital in driving improvements in the quality of treatment and patient experience of care. Both we and the NHS Commissioning Board are committed to their future in the NHS", the spokesperson said, and noted that, as funding will be increased next year, "even more patients will benefit from the valuable contribution they make to improving patient care".