New research from the University of Southampton provides the first direct evidence that a widespread policy of employing more specialist nurses in hospitals is linked to measurable benefits for patients, say the authors.

The study finds that patients with cancer have a better experience of care at hospitals that employ more cancer specialist nurses - the patients are more likely to report being given more emotional support by nurses who work well together on wards, according to Peter Griffiths, Professor of Health Services Research at the University, et al, reporting their findings in the Journal of Health Services Research and Policy.

"Cancer and its treatment can place a huge burden, both physical and psychological, on patients. Supporting people with cancer on the journey from diagnosis to treatment and beyond, which for increasing numbers includes long-term survival, is a key challenge for health services," says Prof Griffiths.

Specialist nurses have been identified as having a key role in providing support and the number employed by the NHS has increased in recent decades. However, with the strain on NHS funding, there is no guarantee about the future of those posts, the authors warn.

For the study, they reviewed existing data from the 2010 National Cancer Patient Experience Survey, and their analysis showed small but important differences in experiences of care. 

Patients of better-staffed Trusts were more likely to report that people treating and caring for them worked well together and that they had received sufficient emotional support during outpatient treatment. Women receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer were also 34% more likely to report that hospital staff did everything possible to control the side effects of chemotherapy in Trusts with the greatest number of clinical nurse specialists.

"This is the first direct evidence that a widespread policy of employing more specialist nurses is liked to measurable benefits in patients. The absolute differences we see are small, but if your odds of receiving good emotional support are increased by 15%, I suspect most of us would take it if we were being treated for cancer," said Prof Griffiths. 

"The message from patients on this has been clear for some time - many of them value the support of specialist nurses. But in these difficult times, many Trusts are looking to save money, and evidence that clearly links the employment of specialist nurses to better patient experience is important. Trusts should realised that if these posts are cut, patient experience can suffer," he warned.

Alison Richardson, co-author of the study and professor of Cancer Nursing and End of Life Care at Southampton General Hospital and the University of Southampton, added: "this research is important for hospitals as it demonstrates variability in cancer nurse specialist provision across different sites and that specific cancer multidisciplinary teams can have an impact on the quality of cancer patient experience. They need to be aware that any decision to reduce the number of these types of nurses could have a detrimental effect on patients."

Cancer charities welcomed the study's findings, which were described by Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK, as "extremely important."

"Although it would seem like a truism that having access to these resources would give patients an improved experience of care, specialist nurse posts are an easy target for Trusts when they are asked to save money," he said.

Macmillan Cancer Support, which has been committed to establishing and providing cancer nurse specialist roles throughout the NHS, also welcomed the new research which it says backs up the wealth of evidence showing just how importance cancer nurse specialists are, especially for improving the patient experience.

"Sadly, access to these nurses varies across the country and by cancer type, while the number of people with cancer is increasing. It is essential that cancer nurse specialist roles are protected and every effort is made for more cancer patients to have access to one," emphasised Ciaran Devane, chief executive at Macmillan Cancer Support.