Home Health news From the best doctors in the country to immediate treatment and drugs that are too expensive for the NHS: PROFESSOR ROGER KIRBY explains how Charles’s cancer treatment differs from most patients

From the best doctors in the country to immediate treatment and drugs that are too expensive for the NHS: PROFESSOR ROGER KIRBY explains how Charles’s cancer treatment differs from most patients

by Editor

Like most people, I was saddened to learn of the King’s cancer diagnosis. But, rest assured, Charles will have access to the best healthcare this country has to offer.

As a prostate surgeon with more than four decades of experience, I have seen first-hand the treatment of cancer patients in the NHS and London’s top private hospitals.

Of course, NHS patients can expect to be seen by highly-trained, hard-working doctors and nurses who have access to advanced medicines.

However, it is undeniable that money can buy the very best when it comes to cancer.

Charles will no doubt be seen by the most accomplished specialists in the country, who work at elite facilities because they are the most in demand – and often receive eye-watering salaries.

But it’s not just the doctors themselves that set luxury private cancer care apart from the NHS.

From expensive drugs to private chefs, read on to find out what King Charles might get that most of his loyal subjects may not.

Charles, pictured with Camilla, will receive the fastest possible treatment, says Professor Kirby

Charles, pictured with Camilla, will receive the fastest possible treatment, says Professor Kirby

Wait days, not weeks to start treatment

According to the Prime Minister, Charles’s cancer was caught early, and we also know he began treatment on Monday. Those fortunate enough to have private healthcare would expect to begin treatment almost immediately.

We’re told that, although he was in hospital recently for treatment for an enlarged prostate, he does not have prostate cancer. However it’s not been made public what type of cancer he has.

It would be wrong to speculate further on the nature of his illness. But while in hospital, it is highly likely he will have undergone blood analysis and body scans that could have revealed the disease.

At 75, Charles is an age at which men are most in danger of developing cancer, and lung, bowel and bladder cancers are common diagnoses in this group. That’s why it’s important to get regular check-ups, especially if you begin experiencing unexpected symptoms.

A big problem is that many men do not go to the doctor when they begin to experience health problems, which is why men tend to die younger than women.

Thankfully, Charles appears to have bucked that trend. And that will give him a good chance at a positive outcome. However, so will the speedy cancer treatment that he likely will receive at a top private hospital.

Most NHS patients with a cancer diagnosis can expect to wait weeks, even months, to begin treatment, which could be surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and other medications.

The NHS has a target that patients should wait no longer than two months for this all to start. But figures from the end of last year suggest that more than 20,000 Britons are waiting longer than 62 days to commence cancer care.

Studies suggest that every month treatment is delayed for an aggressive cancer the risk of death rises by 10 per cent.

However for most patients a two-month wait from diagnosis to start of treatment does not significantly impact chances of survival. Despite this, waiting can be incredibly anxiety-inducing.

Private cancer care allows patients to escape this anxiety and begin cancer care instantly. It’s no wonder that cancer care is now the biggest earner for London’s private hospitals.

Money is no issue when it comes to life-saving drugs  

NHS doctors have access to some of the best cancer medicines in the world, however there are some drugs which are only offered privately due to their prohibitive cost.

There has been a revolution in cancer treatment thanks to the development of precision medicine: targeted therapies designed to attack specific aspects of certain cancer types, and immunotherapy, which are drugs that help train defensive cells in the body to find and destroy cancer.

They can be used alongside conventional treatments, like chemotherapy, or on their own. Even with advanced, incurable cancers, they are proving remarkably successful in extending life and even offering cures in some cases.

These new drugs are also extremely expensive and many are not offered on the NHS, or if they are, only in very limited circumstances.

According to Hendrik-Tobias Arkenau, medical director of the Sarah Cannon Research Institute UK, an example of this is the immunotherapy drug ipilimumab, which costs roughly £15,000 per injection, given once every three months for as long as there is benefit.

It is offered to NHS patients with melanoma skin cancer and some types of lung cancer, however Professor Arkenau says: ‘Currently, there are some bowel cancer patients who could benefit from ipilimumab but can’t get it on the NHS.

‘It’s likely that drugs like this will eventually be offered to NHS bowel patients, but there are often delays to rolling them out, because the NHS has to negotiate to bring these costs down.

‘The private sector doesn’t need to do that, because the patient pays.’

Moreover, many newer cancer treatments require doctors and nurses who are trained to administer them.

If your local NHS hospital doesn’t have a clinician who knows how to use the cancer treatment you need, you’ll likely be referred on to a specialist hospital further afield.

King Charles won’t have this issue as the specialists he needs for his cancer care will come to him.

Most cancer tests are the same wherever you are treated, but there is some technology that NHS hospitals cannot afford to provide.

Private patients may also be offered genetic testing – analysis of tumour cells that can identify which treatments are most likely to be effective.

Similar tests can also warn patients if they carry a gene which increases the risk of cancer, which is important knowledge because this gene can be passed down to children.

Due to the prohibitive cost of carrying out these genetic tests, the practice is reserved for only the most needy patients on the NHS.

However, private hospitals are able to offer genetic testing to any patient who is willing to pay for it.

It is important to note that many patients, particularly men, will not benefit from genetic testing.

While doctors now know which types of mutations are linked with aggressive breast cancer, for example, scientists have been less successful identifying important mutations linked to men with prostate and testicular cancer.

Private patients may also be offered more advanced scanning technology than NHS patients.

One example is a scanner known as a 3-Tesla magnetic resonance imaging machine. This provides much clearer and more detailed images than standard MRI, allowing doctors to make a more accurate diagnosis of disease such as prostate cancer.

However, these machines can cost millions of pounds. For this reason, it is deemed too expensive for the NHS, but it is the kind of care a private patient could expect to receive.

The Cleveland Clinic has spent an astonishing £2billion on this new hospital in central London

The Cleveland Clinic has spent an astonishing £2billion on this new hospital in central London 

Five-star treatment and a private chef

Many private clinics look more like five-star hotels than hospitals.

The Cleveland Clinic has spent an astonishing £2billion on a new hospital in central London.

The exclusive centre, which overlooks Buckingham Palace, cares for fewer than 200 patients at a time but has a staff of nearly 1,500 including 350 consultants.

When you walk in, you are immediately struck by the super-modern, almost futuristic, design chosen by the US medical firm.

It’s a far cry from NHS hospitals which often look old-fashioned and sometimes even dilapidated.

Many top private London hospitals, such as King Edward VII’s Hospital in Marylebone, where I am a trustee, have kitchens run by top chefs, which serve freshly cooked food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

It’s no surprise that patients are prepared to pay a significant premium to receive this level of comfort.

An increasing number, of course, will have private health insurance – which depending on the level of their policy – will contribute all or part of their costs.

We don’t know how regularly King Charles may need to attend hospital, how long he will stay or what his treatment will entail.

But it’s certain that he will be comfortable and well-attended.

But the NHS has its advantages

Private care can’t buy you everything in the UK. Most private cancer patients will be treated by one specialist who oversees their care. But in the NHS, patients will be seen by a revolving team of specialists, in everything from cardiovascular health to chemotherapy.

This is more out of habit than anything, as private doctors have traditionally taken sole responsibility of patients, rather than sharing it with other clinicians.

It’s this teamwork that I think the NHS is particularly world-leading in.

Moreover, many private hospitals are generally not best equipped for emergencies. This is because they do not have the equipment to deal with a life-threatening situation, such as a heart attack or stroke.

In the case this happens, private hospital patients may be sent by ambulance to an NHS facility which can lead to a delay in emergency treatment.

However, I am certain that, wherever Charles is receiving his cancer care, he will be treated by some of the finest doctors in the world, who will give him the best chance of recovery.

Professor Roger Kirby is president of the Royal Society of Medicine

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