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Meeting the challenges set by the Cancer Taskforce – Professor Sean Duffy

NHS England’s National Clinical Director for Cancer, Sean Duffy, reflects on the publication of the report of the Independent Cancer Taskforce, and looks ahead to how its recommendations will be taken forward:

I was privileged to be involved in helping produce the Independent Cancer Taskforce report, Achieving World-Class Cancer Outcomes: A Strategy for England, which was published in July.

The report sets out a powerful vision for cancer services in England over the next five years.

Despite the improvements in survival we’ve made over the last 40 years, we often still lag behind the best in the world. The Taskforce offers an opportunity to take a step back and consider what really needs to happen for us to begin achieving truly world-class cancer outcomes.

Over six months, the Taskforce brought together doctors, policy makers, academics and patients in more than 100 engagement events. We listened to the concerns of those with cancer and their families, and heard the latest evidence and clinical advice on how best to tackle the challenges we face.

The report outlines six strategic priorities we need to focus on to bring our cancer services up to the standard of the best. These strategic priorities give NHS England a clear underlying direction to underpin all of our work on cancer.

Prevention and Public Health:

As outlined in the Five-Year Forward View (FYFV), a clear focus on prevention is crucial to the future of the health service. Cancer is no different – 40% of cancers are considered preventable by making changes to our environment or lifestyles.

The Department of Health will be producing a new tobacco control strategy to lay out how we can tackle this, but action will increasingly be needed on alcohol, obesity and physical activity to reduce the number of preventable cancers.

Earlier diagnosis:

The earlier we diagnose cancer, the more likely it is to be cured. Earlier diagnosis of cancer is a long-standing priority for NHS England.  The taskforce has made some bold suggestions to take our efforts on to the next stage. We will need to include both faster diagnosis of people with symptoms and continuing to test and share learning on new models for earlier diagnosis.

Parity of patient experience:

The report presents us with an opportunity to revolutionise cancer patient experience. Too often, patient experience is not considered as a high priority when we talk about and design cancer services. The Taskforce rightly puts the experience of the patient front and centre of any conversation about improving cancer services.

Support for people living with and beyond cancer:

More people are now surviving cancer than ever before. This presents new challenges, as we ensure that patients receive the follow-up care and support they need to return to normal life. We will be speeding up the roll-out of the recovery package – a set of interventions designed to ensure a person centred approach to care – as part of achieving this.

Invest to deliver a high-quality, modern service:

There is no doubt that we can still achieve a lot by spending the money we have more effectively, and ensuring that we have the right services,  facilities and people to deliver a top quality service. We will be looking at how we best meet the challenges set out in the report – for example, replacing and updating radiotherapy equipment, finding a sustainable solution for access to new cancer treatments, and making the most of the opportunities from molecular diagnostics.

Overhaul processes for commissioning, accountability and provision:

The strategy raises some interesting ideas about how we can better organise our services, from national oversight right down to local delivery. There are interesting suggestions about devolving budgets to local areas, trialling ‘lead providers’ of care, and strengthening oversight at the top of the system. We are committed to working in partnership to drive forward and explore the opportunities in these innovations to deliver better outcomes for patients.

Cancer outcomes in England have seen dramatic improvements. But we cannot rest on our laurels. This report lays down a significant challenge to NHS England and the wider health and care system to up our game. Over the coming months, we’ll be setting out how we can all work together to deliver the changes set out by the Taskforce.

For now, I would encourage you to read the report, share it with others, talk about it with your colleagues, think about the changes you can make in your own areas of work, and join us in making the step-change needed to achieve world-class cancer outcomes.


Sean Duffy, National Clinical Director for CancerSean Duffy is the National Clinical Director for Cancer. Professor Duffy is also a clinical academic gynaecologist based at the University of Leeds with his clinical practice at the city’s St James’s Hospital. His medical expertise is in endometrial cancer and he has an international reputation in the field of endoscopy surgery and training.

He has had senior academic experience in laboratory and health services research and has had national and regional responsibilities for undergraduate and postgraduate education in obstetrics and gynaecology with senior roles in the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and the University of Leeds. For the eight years before he was appointed National Clinical Director for Cancer, he was leading the Yorkshire Cancer Network as medical director and over the last four as director as well.

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