Patients undergoing emergency or urgent surgery are dying because the NHS is too focused on cancer care, experts warn.

In a recent report, the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) has said that critically ill patients who need urgent general surgery are suffering the most unpredictable care.

This includes patients who are rushed to hospital with a burst appendix, gallstones and ruptured bowel.

The report said that death rates vary significantly between hospitals, and in some hospitals one in five patients will die within a month of surgery.

John Abercrombie, who sits on the RCS council, said that “emergency services for people who are critically unwell have been less important in the health service but actually these are the sickest patients.”

Although around 10,000 patients require urgent general surgery every year, the report claims the NHS is too focussed upon cancer operations and hip replacements – largely because there is a huge public interest in these areas.

“Terrible things have happened”

Mr Abercrombie said this has distorted the way the NHS is organised, and means there is a lack of data regarding urgent operations, leaving hospitals in the dark as to how well they are performing.

“Surgery has evolved around people who are not acutely ill. There’s a lot of public interest in illnesses like cancer and elective things that are much easier to measure”, he explained.

“For a surgeon being thrashed to get your waiting list down, increasingly you define yourself as a cancer surgeon or whatever and you just get loaned out to emergency surgery.”

Because there is so little data, hospitals are ignoring key guidelines and are not attempting to make improvements. If key protocols were implemented, the report concludes that death rates could be halved.

The NHS’ drive for specialism is also causing problems, as some younger surgeons do not know how to do basic operations.

Mr Abercrombie said this has caused “terrible things” to happen, including a young boy who lost a testicle, despite the operation being “completely straightforward.”

Candace Imison, director at the Nuffield Trust and one of the authors of the report, said: “This is a really important problem and it needs to be addressed. Solving it is not going to take a vast quantity of resources but significant determination from professionals.”

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