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Dublin: 15 °C Saturday 15 August, 2020

GPs urge patients to get persistent symptoms checked, and fear a 'tsunami' of non-Covid-19 illnesses

If you have a chest pain or a lump on your breast, call your GP for a phone consultation.

Image: Shutterstock/RossHelen

GENERAL PRACTITIONERS ARE deeply concerned about a drop in patients with “persistent” symptoms booking GP consultations, saying that it that may lead to a “tsunami” of non-Covid-19 illnesses.

There has been a drop in cancer referrals, heart attack and stroke related consultations, which GPs have warned haven’t gone away overnight. 

Screening services like CervicalCheck, BreastCheck, and BowelScreen have been temporarily suspended, meaning symptoms like breast lumps and rectal bleeding are more important in catching cancer early among the population.

Speaking in the Dáil on Thursday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that he spoke to a GP who said he hadn’t diagnosed someone with cancer in a month, which is the first time such a thing has happened.

“Cancer hasn’t gone away,” he said, before urging people with serious symptoms or urgent ailments to go to their GP.

“Perhaps people think they are being a burden,” Varadkar said. “GP clinics are open, emergency departments are open.”

Eamonn Shanahan, a GP from Kerry, said that he recently met two brothers on the road in their 70s. One of them had a lower back pain, which he said is a “potentially serious thing” for someone in that age group and if it’s newly developed.

The other brother had a previous history of heart attacks and mild strokes was due to have a procedure done but cancelled it because he was terrified.

Shanahan said the brother told him: “I would prefer to die of a heart attack, than die of Covid.”

He said that although people are “beginning to make more contact” and patients were beginning to come forward, that there was still a “reluctance” to get in touch. 

And it’s ”not just the elderly”, Shanahan said.

“We’re seeing very, very few children,” he said. “They’re not even making phone calls about them. That’s unusual because we would be seeing lots and lots of children.”

“We’re encouraging women to come to get their routine postnatal visits. We’re also continuing and it’s really important that children would continue to get their childhood immunisation, even more important now.”

If somebody has a persistent symptom in other words if they have something that’s out of the ordinary that’s going on… General practices open, the hospitals or open. Pick up the phone and give us a ring – that’s all we’re asking.

He said that the later people present, we’re going to have a “second tsunami, a second surge of non-Covid related illnesses”, when there could be more advanced conditions related to their heart, lungs or kidneys.

Lucia Gannon, a GP in Co Tipperary, said that the overall attendances are down by a third compared to last year, but things are starting to get busier.

“Urinary tract infections, I don’t know where they’re all gone… There’s no real reason for that that I can see. ”

She said that people are getting over minor injuries like sprains and twists themselves. 

Consultations with children are also down, which could be related to less infections because the schools are closed, and Gannon worries about how children with behavioural issues are getting on who may need the help of a doctor.

Gannon said that there has also been a big decline in unplanned pregnancies. “I don’t know what’s happened to them,” she says.

On advice to women who have an unplanned pregnancy, Gannon asks them to call their GP:

“They need to call,the services there, they will receive a service. They just need to call. They can call MyOptions who will direct them to the proper channels.”

Gannon says she also hasn’t seem women with breast lumps, which would have been common before, or with people who are on chemotherapy.

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She also asked people who may need their diabetes checked. “I’d worry a little bit.”

Ray Walley, a GP in Dublin gives an example of a child who fell, and his parents decided to leave the injury to heal, but the injury got infected.

He said that he had another patient who had a chest pain who delayed calling to the GP.

He emphasises that GPs are still using telecommunications, emails and photos to asses a patient in the current climate, and that delayed consultancies is an issue being experienced all across Europe. 

“GPs may be wearing a mask, [but] please do not ignore medical conditions, like lumps or chest pains. Nobody is a burden.”

CEO of the Irish Cancer Society, Averil Power, said that nurses have heard from a number of people who are ”concerned, or even embarrassed”, about contacting their GP about potential cancer symptoms because of coronavirus pressures on the health system.

“Our message to everyone is really simple: please contact your GP if you are worried that you may be showing a sign or a symptom of cancer. Please don’t be afraid or embarrassed to do this – when it comes to cancer early detection is key,” she said.

The Irish Cancer Society’s Cancer Nurseline is also open seven days a week for anyone worried by cancer who would like to speak with a Cancer Nurse.

You can call Freephone 1800 200 700 or log on to

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