Concerns over fall in cancer referrals and operation cancellations during Covid-19 crisis

GP referrals for suspected cancer cases have dropped by more than a half.

THERE IS A risk cancers are being missed during the Covid-19 crisis due to people not presenting to their doctors and appointments and operations being cancelled. 

Health Minister Simon said he spoke to a GP who has not seen a suspect cancer case in his own surgery for weeks.

The doctor told the minister that this would be very unusual.

“That is a cause for worry,” said the minister because it means people are not coming forward with concerns about their own health. 

“Cancer has not gone away,” he said. “We need to fix it. I need people in this country to know that we have capacity in the Irish health service,” said Harris, stating that non-Covid care is now being streamlined away from Covid-19 cases. 

“Please come forward, don’t feel that you are burden,” he added. 

His comments come as the Irish Cancer Society said it is concerned about a drop in suspected cancer cases being referred for investigation by GPs.

New figures from the HSE show that the number of suspected cancer cases being referred for investigation by GPs through the HealthLink referral system has dropped by more than half.

CEO of the Society, Averil Power said:

“This information from the HSE is extremely worrying. It is crucial that people continue to seek medical advice if they are concerned about their health.

“When it comes to cancer, early detection is key and can be the difference between life or death in some cases.” 

A number of TDs also raised concerns in the Dáil this week about patients having their appointments and operations cancelled.

One patient concerned about skin cancer told that their appointment for a biopsy had been cancelled, with another stating that their operation to remove a tumor has been re-scheduled.

Speaking in the Dáil on Thursday, Fianna Fáil TD Niamh Smyth said she knows of one young man who has a wife and four small kids waiting on an operation for a tumor in St. James’s Hospital.

“He has been given no clarity on when that operation might happen. Are operations that were scheduled before this pandemic happened still scheduled? What are the implications?” she asked the Health Minister Simon Harris.

Fianna Fáil’s Cathal Crowe said a constituent in Clare sent him a letter earlier in the week about her elderly husband suffering from advanced cancer. He had been due to undergo surgery at the Bon Secours Hospital Limerick at Barringtons in Limerick City.

“The family is now being told, however, that due to Covid-19, the appointment cannot be carried out and that man now has to join many others on the public waiting list, a list that is not moving at the moment. This is causing major stress to the family and it is utterly unacceptable,” he said.

Labour’s Aln Kelly said a Limerick consultant he knows said he generally diagnoses cancer eight times a week but has not done so for the last four weeks.

“These people are walking around not knowing they have cancer. We have a lack of screening for bowel and cervical cancer. BreastCheck is not operating. We also know we have elevated mental health risks. On top of that are the socioeconomic impacts of maintaining restrictions. All of this needs to be considered and that is the Government’s role,” said Kelly.

Harris said he is setting up of community assessment hubs to try and ensure that Covid patients can go to a community assessment hub and non-Covid patients can continue to go to a GP.

“We have seen a significant drop-off in the numbers of people attending their GP and that is how cancers can be missed and referrals to hospitals not given. I am hoping those community assessment hubs will help,” he said.

In a statement, the HSE said it is encouraging people with chronic or serious underlying health issues not to ignore their symptoms or delay consulting their GP while Covid-19 restrictions are in place.

“We are advising patients to phone their GP first to discuss their symptoms. The GP can perform an assessment over the phone to work out the best treatment plan. Many problems can be resolved over the phone or by video consultation, such as prescription matters or referrals to other services.”

In relation to the specific examples of treatment and appointments being delayed during the crisis, the HSE said it would encourage the people concerned to contact their treatment team for further guidance.

“There has been a pause in some cancer services during the immediate Covid-19 crisis. This is to ensure the ongoing provision of critical care and, more importantly, to protect patients by reducing the risk of infection. We are awaiting guidance from NPHET regarding the resumption of services.”

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