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Hancock’s high-tech approach to cancer care

Gabriel Gavin

Last week, both Prime Minister Theresa May and Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary celebrated their birthdays. But it was the birthday of the National Health Service which took the forefront of their keynote speeches at Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham – as improved cancer outcomes were placed at the heart of announcements to mark 70 years since the formation of the NHS.

Hancock opened his speech by highlighting the NHS as the world’s largest purchaser of fax machines.  This claim is based upon a report from AI company DeepMind in 2017 and Hancock has adopted the statistic in several speeches since taking the brief – a sign of his ambitions for modernisation across the health service – including oncology.

Paying tribute to the recent achievements of the NHS, from saving the life of his sister to driving up cancer survival rates to record highs, Hancock set out a vision of a health system where patients can access care tailor-made for them. He cited projects using cultured tumour cells to determine what drug or combination of drugs is likely to produce the best response, before the patient even starts a course of treatment.

It is this focus on personalised medicine that underpins his announcement that the new NHS Genomic Medicines Service (GMS) is preparing to treat its first patients. The GMS will be available to patients with rare cancers – the first of its kind to be offered anywhere in the world. The decision to establish the GMS was made before Hancock arrived at the Department of Health, but giving it such prominence in his conference speech indicates it will remain a ministerial priority.

The PM was able to cherry-pick a key part of the long-awaited NHS Long Term Plan

The Government is acknowledging the widespread support for NHS spending, highlighted by recent polling that shows the NHS is the top priority across almost every demographic in the country, and May was eager to claim credit for some of the positive measures being announced.

In her speech to Conference, the PM was able to cherry-pick a key part of the long-awaited NHS Long Term Plan, outlining a new national Cancer Strategy.

The strategy focuses on early diagnosis rates, increasing the number of people eligible for screening, and equipping hospitals with modern diagnostic technologies.  May pledged that this would lead to 55,000 more people living five years after a cancer diagnosis.

Cancer remains an emotive issue for the public and citing the loss of her own god daughter to the disease will help present this as a personal crusade for the Prime Minister.  But as well as being popular, the policy makes sense.  A study published in The Lancet last month highlighted the potential benefits of an effective national cancer strategy, and the existing strategy is due to expire in 2020.

However, it is unclear this will neutralise criticism of the Government’s record on the NHS.  John Ashworth, the Shadow Health Secretary, has already argued that the £20 billion announced as part of the 70th anniversary settlement isn’t enough, and that Labour would spend even more on the NHS.

Alongside defending against Labour’s attacks, Hancock must also secure buy-in across the NHS.   The focus on early diagnosis is understandable, but it does mean that other areas may miss out. Cancer Research UK has also been quick to point out that whilst the announcement is great news, a new strategy will require more NHS staff to deliver it. Hancock needs to be clear about the challenges here and embed the culture of earlier diagnosis across the health service if he is to truly make cancer care ‘fit for the future.’