Paramedics’ desperate ‘crisis calls’ as they struggle to treat cancer patients


Desperate NHS staff are calling charity workers for help with cancer patients in need of urgent support or emergency care, it has emerged.

Macmillan said patients who are experiencing complications or extreme pain due to recent treatments have been struggling to reach the NHS’s dedicated hospital teams for advice and rapid care, which have become overwhelmed in the wake of the pandemic.

These individuals are subsequently calling 999 for help. However, paramedics called to respond are themselves unable to provide or find support for the patients, and instead turn to Macmillan’s hotline, the charity added.

“Macmillan is starting to receive calls from paramedics who aren’t able to reach the key parts of the NHS and are asking us on the phone to try to step in to offer advice to patients in these emergencies,” said Steven McIntosh, Macmillan's executive director of advocacy and communications.

In one recent case shared with The Telegraph, a paramedic rang Macmillan on behalf of a liver cancer patient who had suffered a hypoglycaemic attack.

The NHS worker asked the charity if they could care for the patient and whether Macmillan would be able to admit them to a cancer ward, despite not having any such facilities. The patient was subsequently directed by Macmillan to accident and emergency.

Although Macmillan has an existing relationship with the NHS and provides emotional and practical advice for cancer patients in the community, it does not offer clinical care or emergency support.

'Desperate NHS staff end up ringing Macmillan'

Mr McIntosh said it was “the first time” in the charity’s history that it had received “crisis calls” from stretched NHS professionals requesting help.

Macmillan is answering tens of these calls each month, but fears this figure is “only going to increase because the Government hasn’t yet offered a plan and a set of solutions to tackle the immediate pressures facing cancer services”, added Mr McIntosh.

The latest statistics show that thousands of people with cancer or suspected cancer are not receiving the rapid care they need.

In January, more than 7,000 people with cancer in England waited more than two months to start treatment following an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer – the highest monthly figure on record for this target.

In the first five months of 2022-23, only 62 per cent of patients did not wait more than two months for cancer treatment and 11 per cent were treated more than 104 days after an urgent referral.

Earlier this month, a committee of MPs said waiting times for cancer treatment were “at their worst recorded level”.

Mr McIntosh said cancer patients who are suffering from complications of medication or have just come out of surgery “aren’t able to access the support they need at home, so they're reaching crisis point”.

He added: “You would normally expect those individuals to be able to reach their cancer team through the NHS, to be able to get changes to their medications or work out whether they need to be readmitted to hospital where they can get further care.

“In the absence of that, if the pain or complications escalate, they call an ambulance. But paramedics are really aware that taking someone in an ambulance to a hospital may mean further delays outside that hospital.

“So desperate NHS staff end up ringing Macmillan to ask: ‘How can you step in? Can you just talk to this patient on the phone and offer clinical advice?’”

Sian Robinson, a Macmillan support line worker, said there has been an “uplift in medical professionals calling us” over the past year, adding that the fallout from the pandemic was fuelling this trend.

“I would say everything changed when the pandemic started,” she said. “There was that immediate change in not having access anymore, not being able to walk to the GP.

“We’re seeing the impact of that now. We expect an upward lift in calls from cancer patients in difficult situations, who have maybe recently diagnosed and are struggling to get a foothold in the system, and medical professionals too.”

An NHS spokesman said: “The NHS is treating more people for cancer than ever before. Thanks to the efforts of NHS staff, major public awareness campaigns and targeted screening interventions, over 2.8 million people were checked for cancer and 322,000 started treatment in the last year.

“The NHS has also made significant progress on the 62-day cancer backlog, despite record levels of demand on cancer services, and since April 2022, over 90 per cent of people have started cancer treatment within a month.”