Cancer deaths could rise for decade due to Covid disruption – Oncologist

Professor Seamus O’Reilly said the Covid-19 disruption to health services will have “enormous implications” for years to come. 

A consultant oncologist at Cork University Hospital and the Mercy University Hospital has said Ireland could see its cancer mortality rate rise for the “next decade” after severe disruption caused the cancellation of many screenings during Covid-19 lockdowns.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted cancer services. Patients were concerned about coming into hospital. Services had to be curtailed due to social distancing and redeployment of staff,” he said.

“Our health service still has not returned to normal. This has enormous implications, and our concern as oncologists is of delayed cancer diagnosis occurring as a result.”

Speaking on behalf of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) during European Week Against Cancer, Professor Seamus O’Reilly said the HSE would have to hire 73 extra consultant oncologists over the coming seven years in order to adequately deal with the backlog.

He claimed that cancer rates were already increasing at a rate of 5 percent each year before the Covid-19 outbreak.

“Cancer care is time-dependent,” the consultant said.

“For example, colonoscopies are the gold standard of diagnosis for bowel cancers. Pre-pandemic, urgent referrals were seen within one month. Now, as a result of disruptions to service, 60% of referrals are waiting longer than three months.”

20 percent of hospital consultancy posts are currently vacant, leading to delays in screening, diagnosis and treatment, whilst a shortage of personnel in other departments had a direct impact on cancer care, he claimed.

“Cancer care isn’t just about chemotherapy; it’s additional psychological care, radiology, surgery, physiotherapy,” O’Reilly said..

“Cancer care is an ecosystem, and, when one of those fields is weakened, the supporting iron wall keeping patients safe becomes less rigid, and their outcome worsens.

“Cancer care is about talent…it is important that our public health system has the ability to recruit and retain the highest talent available. We need an environment that’s supportive.

“We also need an environment where there is demonstrable equity of treatment for all of our staff.”

IHCA president Prof. Alan Irvine said action now would “prevent the current pandemic healthcare crisis drawing out for the rest of the decade.”.

“Waiting lists are lengthening. Smaller teams are being burnt out. Older consultants are retiring. Meanwhile, Ireland’s population is growing and ageing, and the general incidence of cancers is increasing,” Irvine said.

“This is a deeply concerning and deeply volatile combination, but we needn’t stumble into health service collapse.

“The solution is obvious: we simply must appoint additional consultants, and quickly. Government action now will prevent the current pandemic healthcare crisis drawing out for the rest of the decade.”

Meanwhile, experts in Britain have also warned that England is also at risk of “replacing the Covid crisis with a cancer crisis”, as it was revealed more than 300,000 people had missed screenings since the outbreak of Covid-19.

The news comes as the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research released figures estimating that cancer survival rates had been set back by eight years and that an extra 4,500 cancer deaths would occur this year due to the disruption.

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