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Breast, prostate, lung and skin cancer referrals drop by 25% in three months

Overall, referrals to cancer services have fallen to less than half of the usual numbers.

Image: Shutterstock/Africa Studio

THERE WAS A significant drop in GP clinic referrals for breast, prostate, lung and skin cancer in March this year compared to the same month last year.

From March to May, there were 9,034 e-referrals for suspected symptoms of breast, prostate, lung, and skin cancer from GP clinics to cancer services.

This compares with 12,046 referrals over the same period last year, representing a drop of around 25%.

For skin cancer referrals, the numbers still haven’t quite recovered yet: they dropped from 1,600 between March-May last year, to 898 this year. That represents a drop of 44%.

The HSE has also said that when both symptomatic referrals and screening figures are considered, “the number of patients being referred to cancer diagnostic services decreased since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic to a low of less than half the usual numbers”.

In April and early May, GPs raised concerns about a drop in patients presenting with cancer symptoms at clinics across Ireland, and feared a “tsunami” of non-Covid related illnesses later in the year.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris are among those who have urged people with persistent symptoms – like a lump, rectal bleeding or chest pains – to get themselves checked urgently.

Figures provided by the HSE to TheJournal.ie show that symptomatic breast and skin cancer referrals to the the National Cancer Control Programme dropped dramatically during the month of March, with skin cancer referrals staying low during April.

For breast cancer referrals, figures show:

  • In March there were 1,932 referrals, compared with 3,145 in March 2019
  • In April there were 2,206 referrals, compared with 2,846 in April 2019
  • In May there were 3,079 referrals, compared with 3,091 in May 2019.

For skin cancer referrals, figures show:

  • In March there were 251 referrals, compared with 477 in March 2019
  • In April there were 212 referrals, compared with 502 in April 2019
  • In May there were 453 referrals, compared with 621 in May 2019.

For prostate cancer referrals, figures show:

  • In March there were 251 referrals, compared with 280 in March 2019
  • In April there were 115 referrals, compared with 276 in April 2019
  • In May there were 215 referrals, compared with 320 in May 2019.

For lung cancer referrals, figures show:

  • In March there were 107 referrals, compared with 150 in March 2019
  • In April there were 85 referrals, compared with 168 in April 2019
  • In May there were 106 referrals, compared with 170 in May 2019.

A number of important caveats are to be added: these figures do not include the referrals from screening services, which were halted from March due to Covid-19 related restrictions.

On Thursday, Health Minister Simon Harris confirmed that all cancer screening services will resume by July – starting with CervicalCheck. BreastCheck, BowelScreen, and Diabetic Retinopathy will then resume after that.

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The HSE also pointed out that not all referrals to these services are sent electronically, meaning these e-referral figures do not represent all GP referrals.

We also don’t know how urgent any of these symptoms were, as the HSE states:

“Referrals to symptomatic cancer services are triaged as urgent or non-urgent at the hospital and consultant levels and as such no information is contained in the above e-referral counts as to subsequent triage status.”

Although the figures are improving, the HSE National Cancer Control Programme is still urging anyone with potential symptoms of cancer to phone their GP to get them checked out.

GP and hospital diagnostic cancer services are continuing to operate.
Services have been re-organised and precautionary measures taken to ensure surgeries and hospital environments are safe for patients.
All healthcare staff have been trained and equipped to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.

For more information about common symptoms of cancer, click here

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