Chemotherapy treatment is to be scrapped at one of the country’s largest health trusts because of a shortage of cancer nurses.
The measure takes effect next week at King George Hospital’s specialist cancer unit the Cedar Centre in Ilford, Essex.
Managers say they were left with no other choice after four cancer nurses at the unit left and two more went on maternity leave.
The unit treats around 500 patients each year and they will now have to go to the nearby Queen’s Hospital in Romford, which treats 2000 annually.
Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust (BHR), which runs both hospitals, said it was going to centralise chemotherapy in Romford anyway.
But it brought the switch forward after the nurses left, a move which will cut the total number of cancer nurses across the two sites by four to 15.
The charity Macmillan Cancer Support said the move showed the “extreme pressure” on NHS cancer services, with demand rising as staff shortages grew.
Their director of policy Moira Fraser-Pearce said: “It is hugely concerning if a hospital is not able to recruit enough cancer nurse specialists to feel it can safely provide patients with treatment they need.”
Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) England director Tom Sandford said the loss of the chemotherapy service was “the starkest evidence yet that the nurse staffing crisis is jeopardising safe patient care.”
Mr Sandford added that there are 42,000 nurse vacancies in England and the loss of funding for nurse tuition fees and high living costs were making things worse.
BHR trust chief executive Chris Bown said chemotherapy nurses were particularly hard to recruit and claimed centralisation would improve care for patients.
He said the trust’s radiotherapy centre, cancer experts and the pharmacy team were all based at Queen’s.
The Cedar Centre provided chemotherapy on two days a week to patients requiring “less complex treatments” with the rest going to Queen’s.
Oxford’s Churchill Hospital announced plans in January to ration chemotherapy for existing and new cancer patients due to a nurse shortage.
The number of nurses and health visitors specialising in cancer support in England rose from just over 2,860 to almost 3,100 in the last two years, according to NHS Digital.
But there are still severe shortages in many areas and doctors working in hospital and community cancer support fell over the same period from 141 to 108.
With nurse shortages affecting all areas of health care, concern is growing about the toll on hard-pressed staff and for patient safety.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock is now reported to be considering legislation on safe staffing levels in England, the Nursing Times reported today.