Patients diagnosed with cancer in prison more likely to die, study finds

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Those diagnosed while in prison face several barriers to treatment and receive worse experiences of care, according to a study led by King’s College London.


Researchers from King’s College London (KCL), University of Surrey and University College London (UCL), funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), have found that inequalities in cancer outcomes are persistent across English prisons, with those diagnosed while in prison 9 per cent more likely to die from the disease.

The study analysed cancer data from the National Disease Registration Service, which is part of NHS England, and conducted interviews with cancer patients in prison, and prison and healthcare professionals. It finds that cancer patients in prison are 28 per cent less likely to receive curative treatment than the general population, particularly surgery to remove tumours. Only half of the 9 per cent higher mortality rate can be explained by treatment differences.

Prisoners with cancer also have fewer hospital admissions than the general population, meaning that the cost of NHS hospital care is lower in the first six months due to fewer outpatient visits and planned inpatient stays. However, once emergency care and security escort costs are factored in, overall hospital care costs are higher.

Accordingly, the study emphasises the need to improve cancer care for people in prisons, to ensure that it is equivalent to that received by the general population.

Commenting on the study’s findings, Dr Elizabeth Davies, Clinical Reader in Cancer and Public Health in the School of Cancer & Pharmaceutical Sciences at KCL, said: “There are a number of structural factors that influence how healthcare is organised within the prison system, including the way in which prisons interact with NHS cancer services.

“Unfortunately, these factors can mean the route to diagnosis for people in prison is different to that of the general population, and they may not always receive the same level of treatment and support. People in prison with cancer have so far been a hidden and under-researched population. They should not be impacted by such health inequalities and should receive the same standard of care as they would in the community.”

To improve cancer care for people in prison, Dr Davies suggested, the NHS, HM Prisons and the Ministry of Justice should make better use of existing data to identify and reduce variations in care, as well as to better co-ordinate care pathways between these organisations.


Barriers to care

While finding that cancer patients in prison follow similar diagnostic pathways to the general population, the study shows that those in prison are disproportionately affected by barriers to care. These include lower levels of health literacy among those in prison, which impacts the ability to obtain and understand the information needed to make informed health or treatment decisions. Alongside this, the process for booking GP appointments in prisons is complex and time-consuming, and persistent communication issues between prison staff and NHS clinicians make co-ordinating care difficult.

Prison healthcare professionals interviewed commented that, prior to diagnosis, it can be difficult to distinguish between those with genuine healthcare concerns and those wishing to leave prison for other reasons.

Cancer patients in prison are also at risk of missing appointments if transport to hospital is not available. Persistent staff shortages in prisons also present another barrier. It was reported last year that many prisons are increasingly running more restrictive regimes, where a lack of staff can lead to prisoners being locked down for extended periods. The most restrictive of these, known as “red regimes”, were put into effect at least 22 times across English prisons in 2023. Prisoners have cited being locked up for 23.5 hours a day with no access to showers when under a “red regime”.

The study also highlights the use of handcuffs as a barrier to accessing care and a reason for prisoners to refuse hospital appointments. Further, prisoners are found to be reluctant to answer certain medical questions or raise concerns during appointments when healthcare professionals are present, and the study is the first to highlight discomfort among healthcare professionals and prison officers due to this practice.

After diagnosis, patients reported feeling unable to follow the advice of oncology professionals for managing and reporting side effects, which is especially challenging as they cannot directly communicate with their consultants from prison.
NHS oncology services often advice patients to bring friends or family members to appointments to offer psychological support and assist them with information gathering and retention, yet most of those diagnosed in prison attend appointments without this support, and their families often have little interaction with oncology teams.

“Prisons are designed to take away elements of control and choice for prisoners, however, this should not apply to their healthcare,” said Professor Jo Arnes, Professor of Cancer Care and Lead for Digital Health in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Surrey. “Our findings show that patients experience a number of barriers during diagnosis and similarly, once treatment started, they struggled to follow the advice of oncology professionals for reporting and managing any side effects.”

“Instead, they were reliant on prison officers and prison health professionals to respond appropriately, which undoubtedly impacts on their overall physical and emotional wellbeing. With a growing and ageing prison population there is an increasing need for patients with cancer within the prison system to access equivalent care to those in the community,” Professor Arnes added.

Professor Rachael Hunter, Professor of Health Economics at UCL, commented: “Although the cost of clinical cancer-related care for people in prison is less than in the general population, this does not reflect cost savings or efficiency, but worse access to care. More evidence is needed on cost-effective ways to improve access to curative cancer care for people in prison that is appropriate for the prison service.”

The study was coproduced by peer researchers with lived experience of the criminal justice system, supported by Revolving Doors – a charity dedicated to improving services for people in contact with the criminal justice system. It was presented in three collaborative papers published by The Lancet Oncology and eClinical Medicine.