Today the government has announced £200 million of funding for new MRI machines, CT scanners and breast screening equipment.
In light of this announcement, our head of policy and services Helen Bulbeck takes some time to reflect on what this actually means for the brain tumour community.
This news is a step in the right direction and is indeed exciting – it show recognition of a need to improve diagnoses of cancer in the UK if we are to keep up with similar countries. But there are so many complex things at play when it comes to a brain tumour it is unclear whether this will make much difference.
Most important is making sure that the human interface is in place – GPs who are ready to refer for a scan, patients who understand the risk involved and most of all we need to have neuro-radiologists to read the scans. There is a huge shortage of human resource on the ground which leads to long delays in reporting imaging. Up to date equipment and a stronger workforce should ensure that people are receiving their results in a timely manner and in line with NICE guidance. This needs addressing first and there is no silver bullet for fast tracking the expertise that is needed.
Does earlier diagnosis improve outcomes for people diagnosed with a brain or spinal cord tumour?
We still don’t know if earlier diagnosis of a brain tumour in adults would make a difference to survival outcomes. Understanding the impact of earlier diagnosis has been identified as a priority by the brain tumour community – people living with a brain tumour and the clinical teams involved in their treatment. Without new treatments, there is a risk that we will think people are living for longer with the disease when actually they have just known about it and are living with the burden for longer. This is called lead-time bias.
One of the areas we are working on to help with this is headache plus, so headache plus another symptom. We know that headaches suspicious of a brain tumour is a common worry for GPs and patients. We know that imaging can identify a brain tumour but imaging may also identify incidental findings of no importance, or non-specific brain changes that are difficult to interpret and may lead to people being treated unnecessarily – called over treatment. This has happened in breast cancer. So whilst it may sound beneficial to have more access to new state of the art technology this is not going to be a game changer for diagnosing brain tumours.