The care experience of cancer patients is better at hospitals that employ a larger number of cancer specialist nurses, according to a newly published study of the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom. Patients of better staffed hospitals are more likely to report being given more emotional support by nurses who work well together on wards.

“Cancer and its treatment can place a huge burden, both physical and psychological, on patients. Supporting people with cancer on the journey from diagnosis to treatment and beyond, which for increasing numbers includes long-term survival, is a key challenge for health services. Specialist nurses have been identified as having a key role in providing support … ,” said study author Peter Griffiths, Professor of Health Services Research at the University of Southampton.

“This is the first direct evidence that a widespread policy of employing more specialist nurses is linked to measurable benefits to patients. The absolute differences we see are small but if your odds of receiving good emotional support are increased by 15%, I suspect most of us would take it if we were being treated for cancer.”

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The research team reviewed existing data from the 2010 National Cancer Patient Experience Survey. The study was published in the Journal of Health Services Research and Policy (2013; doi:10.1177/1355819612473451).

Analysis showed small but important differences in experiences of care. Patients of better staffed trusts were more likely to report that people treating and caring for them worked well together and that they received enough emotional support during outpatient treatment. Women receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer were also 34% more likely to report that hospital staff did everything possible to control the side effects of chemotherapy in trusts with the most clinical nurse specialists.

Griffiths said, “The message from patients on this has been clear for some time—many of them value the support of specialist nurses. But in these difficult times many trusts are looking to save money and evidence that clearly links the employment of specialist nurses to better patient experience is important. Trusts should realize that if these posts are cut patient experience can suffer.”

Coauthor Alison Richardson, Professor of Cancer Nursing and End of Life Care at Southampton General Hospital and the University of Southampton, said, “This research is important for hospitals as it demonstrates variability in Cancer Nurse Specialist provision across different sites and that specific cancer multidisciplinary teams can have an impact on the quality of cancer patient experience. They need to be aware that any decision to reduce the number of these types of nurses could have a detrimental effect on patients.”