What a year it has been.
I’d always prefer to start an end-of-year message on a positive note but as I write this, it’s impossible to ignore that several of our major hospital emergency departments are overwhelmed once again. The combination of a fourth COVID wave and an accumulation of workforce pressures and shortages have led to another stressful end-of-year for our healthcare colleagues, and for patients too. It feels so disappointing that this is happening when the broader community is enjoying the festive season without the encumbrance of the restrictions of the past few years.
So, I start with recognition of the situation in our healthcare system, especially in our member hospitals, and of all the people affected.
Earlier today, I joined a panel discussion for the release of the Victorian Cancer Registry (VCR) report, Cancer In Victoria 2021 where again we can see the impacts of the pandemic. The data shows almost 4000 ‘missing’ cancer cases from 2020-2021, presenting a real challenge for cancer services in the years ahead.
The Victorian COVID-19 Cancer Taskforce that we established in March 2020 with Monash Partners Comprehensive Cancer Consortium, is working with our Cancer Council Victoria colleagues to draw out these cases. Over 2023, we will continue our efforts with government and our clinical partners to address the compounded impact of delayed diagnoses on individuals and the health system.
Fortunately, the VCR data also delivered some positive news. The five-year survival rate for Victorians diagnosed with cancer has increased 22 per cent over the past 20 years. This remarkable result is due to the reduced incidence of lung cancer, and improvements in cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. This includes effective recognition of symptoms prompting early diagnosis, increasing impact of screening and early detection, improvement in delivery of health services and discoveries such as targeted drug therapies and immunotherapies. Even better, the mortality rate of most cancers is projected to decline further over the next 15 years.
With over 100 new cancer diagnoses every day in Victoria, this is a problem that is not going away. We need to focus more on prevention, that is cost effective and also brings other benefits to health. However, our truly world-class cancer outcomes are testament to what we are doing right in this state, underpinned by our exceptional biomedical precincts and a workforce of highly skilled professionals across all disciplines.
Our big task now is to ensure ALL Victorians benefit equally and we proactively address the poorer outcomes evident in groups including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, who are twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer and three times more likely to die. The VCCC Alliance has made good progress in this complex area through our Equity program this year. I encourage you to join us for a special Monday Lunch Live on Monday 6 February for World Cancer Day as we discuss barriers to equal cancer care with a thought-provoking keynote from Dr Kalinda Griffiths and some great panellists.
Leaning in to the consumer voice
One key aspect to help drive change is greater inclusion of consumer voices in all types of cancer research. Yesterday we held our fourth Consumer Engagement Forum, a sold-out event, attracting not only consumers but researchers, healthcare professionals and administrators. It is exciting to see researchers really leaning into the consumer voice and discovering how it makes a powerful difference to the impact of their work. Congratulations to all involved in such a positive and influential forum.
As we approach the end of the year, the momentum in our programs is really gathering. In the first few months of 2023 we will launch the new virtual Centre for Cancer Education, our Leadership Academy and the Data-Driven Research Hub which will provide access to a treasure trove of linked data for research.
I particularly want to mention the success of our SKILLED program, led by Marian Leischke and Chris Packer, a pathway for science-based graduates into the clinical trials sector. This world-class program trains and embeds around 20 job-ready clinical trials coordinators and assistants into the healthcare sector each year with impressive workforce retention statistics in the program, regions and sector. This makes a meaningful contribution to reducing disparities in cancer outcomes across the state and provides a direct source of highly skilled clinical trialists at a time when the workforce is under considerable strain. It has attracted support from universities, government and industry and is set to expand across the state and beyond in 2024.
With the return of the Andrews Labor Government in the recent election, we congratulate Minister Mary Ann Thomas on her reappointment as Minister for Health, plus her appointment as Minister for Health Infrastructure and Minister for Medical Research. This sees medical research returning to the health portfolio. We look forward to working with her to capitalise on the opportunities this presents including continuing momentum in research translation and commercialisation. A highlight of the pre-election commitments was a new Women’s Health Research Institute, to be modelled on the success of our alliance. I am excited to see how that evolves and the benefits it should bring, especially around equity.
While there are real challenges for our community right now, we have a lot of positives to take from the past year and to look forward to in 2023.
I would like to sincerely thank the hundreds of people – staff, committee and working group members, our distributed leadership group, and others - who have contributed to the work of the VCCC Alliance over the past year and helped us to step towards our goal of better cancer outcomes for all.
Wishing you all a safe, healthy and happy festive season.