Cancer patients avoid asking questions to 'overstretched' doctors and nurses, charity says

·News Reporter
Embargoed to 0800 Saturday December 28 File photo dated 03/10/14 of a ward at a hospital. New research suggests a fear that bowel cancer is harder to treat than other cancers may contribute to lower rates of participation in screening for the disease.
Macmillan has raised concerns about a rise in calls to its support line, putting the blame to patients seeing their doctors and nurses as overstretched (PA)

An increase in calls to Macmillan Cancer Support has been driven by patients feeling they can’t seek advice from “overstretched” doctors and nurses, the charity has said.

Almost 220,000 calls were made to its free support line in 2019, with 65,000 people helped by the charity – up 7% from last year and 14% from 2017.

The main reason people contacted the charity in 2019 was for emotional support, according to Macmillan. Some 8,011 people called with issues such as anxiety, fear and depression – a rise of 20% on the previous year.

Issues with accessing hospital or community care – including difficulties contacting staff involved in their care – were the second most common reason, with more than 5,000 people contacting the charity.

Emotional support is main reason patients contact Macmillan

The charity extended its support line’s opening hours last year to meet the increased demand.

“Staff taking calls say many people living with cancer ring up in distress having not had the time they needed to process information when speaking with their healthcare team,” Macmillan said.

Ellen Lang, a Macmillan service manager working on the support line, said it was “inevitable” that patients will have unanswered questions if they can see doctors and nurses taking care of them are “visibly rushed off their feet”.

“Every day people call our support line because their world has been turned upside down by a cancer diagnosis,” she said.

An NHS sign at St Thomas' Hospital, with Big Ben in the background, in Westminster, central London
Macmillan's chief executive has called on the Government to fully fund the health service (PA)

“Whatever the concern - fear about impending test results, anxiety about how they will tell their children or what their scan outcome means, they just need someone to listen and help them make sense of it all.

“When you only have 10 minutes with your doctor and your nurse is visibly rushed off their feet, it’s inevitable that you’ll leave without all the answers you need. This is something we’re seeing people experiencing more often.

“For us a big part of the role is to fill in the gaps which cause so much distress and anxiety for patients and their loved ones.”

Workload has ‘negative impact’ on cancer patient care, say nurses

The charity also helps people deal with what it calls “scanxiety” - the wait for results and treatment.

Some 44% of cancer nurse specialists say their workload has a negative impact on patient care and 17% of people recently diagnosed with or treated for cancer said their healthcare professionals seemed to have “unmanageable workloads”, according to Macmillan’s research.

The charity has also said that the last year recorded the lowest proportion of patients seen or treated within the target timeframe.

Mandy Mahoney, 48, an outreach support worker from London who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, said: “In recent times with the pressures on the NHS, I’ve become less likely to contact the hospital for fear of being a nuisance, but this has an impact on my mental health.

“I live in three month chunks these days, always waiting to see what happens at the next scan. Managing that uncertainty long term can be hard. The Macmillan Support Line has been such a lifeline for me.”

Macmillan’s chief executive Lynda Thomas said: “We’re incredibly proud of the service our support line provides, but it’s heart-rending that so many people call at breaking point having struggled to find the support they need from their healthcare team who we know are run-ragged and doing the best they can.

‘Not enough’ NHS services to meet needs of cancer patients

“NHS staff do an extraordinary job faced with huge pressures, but as increased demand for our services shows, there simply aren’t enough of them to meet the needs of the growing number of people living with cancer.

“The newly-formed government must urgently deliver on its promises to prioritise a fully-funded plan for our NHS workforce so that everyone living with cancer can receive the very best care and support they need.”

Macmillan’s support line can be called on 0808 808 00 00 from 8am-8pm every day, though hours can vary during the festive period.

The Department of Health was contacted for comment.

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