Earlier this month health secretary Andrew Lansley hailed the 'fantastic' achievements of hospitals across England after the results of this year's national cancer patient experience survey showed three out of five hospital trusts have improved the level of care and support they provide to cancer patients.
However, although this improvement is certainly encouraging, it's not the whole story. A follow-up analysis by Macmillan Cancer Support, which ranks hospitals in a cancer patient experience league table, shows worrying regional differences.
In a reverse of the stereotypical 'north-south' divide, nine of the bottom ten hospital trusts in the league table are in London, while eight of the top performing trusts are in the North of England. The difference between the top and bottom of the table is often substantial - for example, at the best performing hospital trust, 84% of outpatients are seen within 30 minutes or less of their scheduled appointment time, compared with just 54% at the worst performing trust.
The results of the survey also show us that the quality of patient experience depends on what type of cancer you have. Far fewer sarcoma patients were given easy to understand information about their cancer than patients with prostate cancer, for example.
Variations such as these show that far too many doctors and nurses still seem to focus on the 'cure' rather than the care elements of treatment. And that despite the encouraging results of the national patient survey, there is clearly more work to do.
Ill health is a particularly personal issue and effectively addressing it requires treating people as individuals. It may sound trite, but recognising that patients are individuals is important because we are all different.
Take Ravi, a prostate cancer patient in his mid-40s. He's a dad of two and also cares for his disabled wife. He has to work long hours to make ends meet and has found his diagnosis hard to accept because of his age. He sometimes struggles to attend appointments for his hormone treatment because of his caring responsibilities. Truly understanding Ravi's individual needs would enable staff to ensure that his care was designed around his personal circumstances, therefore maximising the effectiveness of his treatment.
We know that clinical nurse specialists (CNSs) are invaluable to providing high quality information to patients, so it's good to see the number of patients being given the name of the CNS in charge of their care increase from 84% in 2010 to 87% in the latest survey. We expect to see continual improvements in this area.
The results of the national patient survey show that compassion should go hand in hand with clinical excellence to truly deliver what matters to the patient. These findings are therefore vital in convincing the remaining sceptical doctors and nurses to take patient experience seriously.
And, as the government's plans to reform the NHS begin to take effect, here at Macmillan we are calling for the results of the survey to be added to the list of measures used to judge the performance of hospitals. All NHS organisations - and doctors and nurses as individuals - must recognise that compassion is as vital an ingredient as medical excellence to good patient care.
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