February 2020 marked a unique turning point in the fight against cancer. Cancer stakeholders – including oncology experts, patients and industry – stepped up collaboration on cancer policy at EU level. It was a key moment: the European Commission had just opened a consultation that promised a new era in cancer care. Optimism was in the air.
Then COVID-19 struck. Within weeks, the world had changed. People with cancer found their appointments cancelled or moved online. Treatment and clinical trials were disrupted. Screening was paused.
However, at the policy level, momentum never stopped. An intensive one-year consultation period led to the publication of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan – an impressive achievement under challenging circumstances. We applauded the Plan, while stressing the importance of measuring progress.
This year’s European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG) offered an opportunity to reflect on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the opportunities of the new Beating Cancer Plan. At a session organised by the EFPIA Oncology Platform, the European Cancer Patient Coalition and European Cancer Organisation there was a strong sense that the Plan provides a platform on which to build back to a “new better” the cancer care system. Cancer care could – to borrow the theme of this year’s EHFG – rise like a Phoenix in the post-pandemic world.
However, the event also heard some worrying data that made us sit up and take notice. There have been 100 million missed screening tests in the EU during the pandemic. This means that 1 million people may be walking around unaware that they have cancer.
There is also deep concern that the advances in patient outcomes gained in the decade before the pandemic could be lost. Not only could the pace of progress slow, but there is also a real risk of going backwards.
Despite this well-founded fear, we remain optimistic that Europe has an unprecedented opportunity for progress. If we unite and act now in unison, we can create a future that is far better than anything that has gone before. We can revert the current trend that sees cancer becoming the leading cause of death in the EU by 2035.
At the heart of this will be data and the ability to use them. Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan includes an inequalities registry, designed to bridge the gap between Member States. The OECD has been appointed to explore this, and we look forward to engaging on this key topic.
But we also see the need to go further. The Plan cannot be a success unless we demonstrate progress. A public-facing measurement system displaying key indicators would empower patients and policymakers with the information required to drive change. We trust in plans but what gets measured gets done.
We need a jointly agreed set of indicators, defined by an expert group with input from all stakeholders. This does not take years to be developed – it can be built from existing indicators and introduced as swiftly as possible.
Tracking key indicators is not to name, shame or blame. It is to have an up-to-date picture of progress on the core areas of cancer, to learn what works and what doesn’t, and provide an early warning system in case implementation is in danger of drifting off course. It is for citizens to understand and be involved.
Europe has never had a better chance than this to get cancer services right. Key policymaking institutions are on board while experts, patients and industry are ready to play their part. But cancer cannot wait – and neither can we. Now is the moment to ensure that the Beating Cancer Plan is a success.