The future role of the Nurse in speedier Cancer testing

The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announced in his key speech at this year’s Labour Party conference that he plans to bring in speedier testing for cancer in patients showing symptoms of the disease. This will mean earlier diagnosis and earlier treatment, and could potentially save thousands of lives. This promise is building upon what the NHS has already achieved since it received extra funding and brought down the age for breast cancer screening, which has already made a difference to many women’s lives.

In his speech, Gordon Brown pledged to “finance a new right for cancer patients to have diagnostic tests carried out, completed and with results – often same day results – within one week of seeing your GP. That is our early diagnosis guarantee, building on our current guarantee of only two weeks wait to see a specialist.” The Labour Party promises to meet this target by 2014.

Initially the proposal will be implemented for lung, colorectal and ovarian cancers, with other cancers being brought into the service within 5 years. Funding which has previously been used for making improvements to hospital buildings will now be used to provide more diagnostics equipment within GP surgeries and community hospitals, including CT scanners.

So how will this be implemented? Leading cancer expert, Professor Mike Richards, will be leading the new initiative and has stated that it will involve new roles for nurses who will play an important role in carrying out many of the tests, including endoscopies and ultrasounds. The investment in the initiative will create further training opportunities for nurses and could create more nurse jobs. Nursing jobs could also involve raising more awareness of cancerous symptoms, such as unexpected weight loss, changes in bowel habits, persistent coughing or noticeable changes to a mole or wart. This will build upon the nurse’s role in cancer care as rehabilitative carer, where they address rehabilitation issues for patients in teaching, counseling and guidance.

However, there is a fear that the new responsibilities could add pressure to nurses who are already buckling under the strain of a large workload. It could prove challenging to implement the gold standard of clinical examination, ultra sound and pathology in the shorter time frame, bringing into question the quality of the diagnosis as well as the speed.

The new early diagnosis will benefit those patients who show some cancerous symptoms but do not fulfill all the conditions for immediate referral to a specialist. For example, if a young woman found a small lump in her breast, she is below the common age for breast cancer, so may not be referred to a specialist so quickly. The new scheme will be particularly helpful in detecting ovarian cancer, which can be hard to spot as it presents indistinct symptoms. The chief executive of Ovarian Cancer Action, Peter Reynolds, has stated that most women with ovarian cancer were currently diagnosed with the disease at a later stage, making treatment harder and bringing the success rate down.

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