60 seconds with Bupa UK’s head of cancer care Julia Ross
Ahead of World Cancer Day on Monday (4 February) we caught up with Bupa UK’s Julia Ross to find out more about Cancer Direct Access, what’s next for Bupa’s Cancer Promise, and which new cancer drugs and treatments she is keeping a close eye on.
Bupa launched Cancer Direct Access, the UK’s most comprehensive self-referral cancer service, in 2016 for its health insurance customers. Why was the service launched?
We initially launched the service for breast and bowel cancer and in 2017 widened it out to include other cancers. It’s widely understood that early detection in cancer can make it easier to treat and the outcomes are usually much better. However, one of the delays in detecting cancer is encouraging people to seek help and then their wait to see their GP. That’s why we launched the service, so people can pick up the phone and speak directly to someone about their symptoms. Our data shows on average we are getting people in front of a consultant within five days of them calling Bupa and appropriate treatment started within a month.
When we launched the service for breast and bowel, we were contacted by consultants working in other tumour areas like lung asking us to include their area, which is one of the reasons we widened out to include other cancers where there are clear NICE guidelines for identifiable symptoms to allow onward referral. There are some cancers that are quite hard to spot, but we are now striving to work on some of these.
Which cancers do the team receive most calls about?
Breast and bowel, and also skin cancer. Breast cancer is by far our largest area of treatment. Whereas the calls we receive about skin cancer are largely from people worried about skin lesions which are usually non-cancerous or benign – but a small percentage do have more complex skin cancers where early treatment leads to improved outcomes. There’s lots of information available about breast and bowel cancer symptoms, which is great because people know what to look for, and changes to our skin are also more easily noticeable.
People are often too embarrassed to go to their GP about bowel symptoms so being able to pick up the phone and answer a few questions in private and then see a consultant reduces the embarrassment factor, which is one of the reasons we included bowel cancer from the beginning.
Bupa’s health insurance cancer cover includes a range of features to help patients throughout their journey, how has this developed over the last year and what’s next for Bupa UK’s cancer promise?
We have just launched Specialist Centres for breast cancer in partnership with HCA Healthcare UK to give patients fast access to expert care. The partnership means patients will be able to see a HCA UK consultant within two working days of contacting Bupa with all initial diagnostic tests completed in one appointment. If treatment is needed, it will then be provided within 31 days of first calling Bupa and be managed by a multi-disciplinary team of consultants, who make decisions together and ensure the right tests have been undertaken, for example genetic testing to ensure the treatment is correct for the patient.
We also know it’s important to ensure patients are emotionally supported through this very difficult time. We have led the market in cancer support and our oncology nurses ensure patients are supported every step of the way. We also offer our survivorship programme, which is focused on health and wellbeing as we know diet and exercise are really important in recovery. If unfortunately, the treatment isn’t successful, and the patient comes towards the end of life, our oncology nurses support the patient and their family in dying in their place of choice and support them through that very difficult time.
Bupa UK customers have access to breakthrough drugs and advanced treatments. With new cancer drugs and treatments receiving news coverage on an almost daily basis, how does Bupa decide which drugs and treatments to fund?
We will fund any cancer drug that has a licence in Europe or is NICE-approved - which goes beyond the drugs that are authorised by the NHS. In addition to those drugs, we will also fund some drugs out-of-licence. This usually means that the drug or drug regimen is licensed for a tumour type, but there is strong evidence within trials that it is also effective on another tumour type. We have a very stringent process on how we authorise these drugs including a review by our oncology nurses and our medical directors to ensure any drug we authorise has published evidence that it will have the right impact for that patient.
Which new drugs or trials are you most excited about and keeping a close eye on?
CAR-T Therapy is a therapy we are working very closely on at the moment. CAR-T Therapy, uses the patients’ own immune cells to treat a small number of conditions. It has been discussed widely in the media recently as ‘a new breakthrough treatment’. We are working with the pharmaceutical companies launching this in the UK and with the small number of hospitals that are going to be permitted to offer the treatment.