Royal College of Surgeons report calls for greater investment in surgical research

In collaboration with Adfero

Patient care could be jeopardised in the future unless the government takes steps to support surgical research, the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) has warned.

According to the RCS, just 1.5 per cent of the £1.5 billion government funding for medical research is spent on surgical research, and the Medical Research Council and the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) funded just 11 surgical trials in 2009.

This is despite the fact that surgery is vital for the treatment of many diseases and conditions.

A quarter of NHS procedures involve surgery, and more cancers are successfully treated by surgery than by any other form of intervention, including radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

In a new report, entitled 'From Theory to Theatre: Overcoming barriers to innovation in surgery', the college says that a number of factors are contributing to the problem.

These include a funding bias towards drug therapies rather than surgical techniques; slow uptake of new techniques by surgeons and the NHS as a whole; and a lack of defined career pathways, mentors and role models for aspiring surgical researchers to follow.

As a result, NHS patients are missing out on groundbreaking new procedures and therapies, and the problem is set to continue unless action is taken.

The RCS says that continued development and research into surgical treatments is vital for the future of patient care and has called for a full review of public funding of translational research in surgery.

Other recommendations include consideration of how best to spread information on new surgical technologies throughout the NHS; incentives for NHS service providers to support surgical trials; and the inclusion of research modules in surgical training.

Professor Norman Williams, president-elect of the Royal College of Surgeons, said: "In the past decade alone we have seen surgical procedures become safer, less invasive and more effective, both clinically and financially.

"The current funding bias towards medical research needs to be addressed. We cannot afford to neglect the kind of research that has brought, among others, cures for many forms of cancer, keyhole surgery, advancement in transplant surgery and the rapid developments we are now seeing in robotic surgery."

Professor John Primrose, a Cancer Research UK-funded surgeon from the University of Southampton, said the report outlined a well-known problem.

"Despite the huge benefits that come from surgery, funding into surgical innovation is miniscule compared with other areas in medicine - particularly cell and molecular science," he said.

"Surgery's benefits are obvious in cancer treatment as most cancer that is cured is cured by surgery, so if surgery were to be improved then cancer survival could be even better. The UK once led the world in surgical innovation but lack of support for research into surgery has led to the decline we see today."

However, he said that the charity was planning to help remedy the situation.

"Cancer Research UK is addressing the problem through a bold new initiative by funding academic surgical posts in some Cancer Research UK Clinical Centres. These posts will support senior surgical trainees to develop academic careers in cancer surgery. We hope these surgeons will be tomorrow's innovators bringing together biological and technical advances to treat cancer patients which will save thousands of lives," he added.

In response to the report, a Department of Health spokesperson told the BBC that the government invests £20 million in a regional innovation fund each year "to share the most innovative practices and treatments across the NHS".

"And over the next four years we have committed over £4 billion to high-quality medical research - including surgical research.

"We encourage surgeons to apply for this funding as we want to support new ideas and research that meets NIHR requirements and helps us to deliver high-quality care to patients," the spokesperson added.