Doctors say urgent action needed to support cancer services
Top cancer doctors have joined the Irish Cancer Society in calling for urgent action to address the current situation in cancer services that is causing huge anxiety and anguish for patients.
In the lead-up to the Society’s Daffodil Day this Friday in partnership with Boots and a year on from the start of the pandemic, doctors working across hospitals and general practice have given their perspective on the deep impact the pandemic has had on cancer services and patients.
A range of major issues being flagged by frontline healthcare staff include delays to screening as well as tests to diagnose cancers, lengthening waiting lists and increasing exhaustion and worry among staff and patients amid the current situation.
The Irish Cancer Society yesterday expressed its concern at the HSE’s Safe Return to Health Services Plan, which indicates that in a best case scenario it won’t be until the end of the year before cancer services return to pre-Covid-19 levels, concerns which are shared by the medical community.
Cork University Hospital Consultant Medical Oncologist Prof Séamus O’Reilly said: “We urgently need a catch-up strategy to deal with the shortfall in diagnosis and treatment seen over the last year. This should include the establishment of focussed taskforces dealing with a range of areas including treatment, radiology, endoscopy, and existing backlogs for breast and colorectal cancers. We have major concerns around timeframes across screening, diagnostics and surgery at the moment.
“Furthermore we also need a keep-up strategy for the Covid-19 era that deals with protecting cancer services by properly resourcing ‘green’ or Covid-free care pathways, along with upgrades to hospital buildings to reduce infection risk, and a drive for staff retention and recruitment. Staff are exhausted at the moment, and it is also taking a toll on the mental health of cancer patients.”
St Luke’s Hospital Consultant Radiation Oncologist Dr Sinéad Brennan said: “We are now seeing patients present at much more advanced stages of cancer. They have had symptoms for much longer by the time they are diagnosed, often going on several months to a year rather than a few weeks or months that we would normally see, and are reluctant to go to their GPs for worrying symptoms of cancer, with some patients reluctant to undergo treatment due to perceived infection risk.
“This pandemic has highlighted the pre-existing weaknesses in our cancer services. We must put resources into catch-up screening programmes in order to reschedule missed or cancelled appointments, and patients need rapid access to diagnostic tests when they have symptoms and signs of cancer. Dedicated hospital wards and greater operating theatre access and ICU support for cancer surgery are needed along with more consultant cancer specialists in medical and radiation oncology.”
Dublin-based Consultant Gynaecological Oncologist Prof Donal Brennan said: “The focus on cancer prevention has been forgotten, as outlined by the suspension of the HPV vaccination program this year. Unfortunately we are seeing some delayed presentation and more advanced disease due to lack of access to diagnostics in the community. Delays are being encountered in some units as they do not have sufficient resources to withstand any stress in the system beyond the actual pandemic.
“There will be significant waiting lists for non-urgent care for many years to come. These could be addressed in smaller elective units while continuing to develop a leaner, more agile healthcare system by centralising major surgery in a small number of centres with appropriate theatre access, staffing and funding.”
Irish College of General Practitioners Medical Director Dr Diarmuid Quinlan said: “The ICGP is very concerned that delays can occur in the diagnosis of cancer during the pandemic. Prevention and early diagnosis is vital in the fight against cancer. As GPs, we encourage everyone who feels they may have any symptoms of a possible cancer to pick up the phone and ring their GP. Don’t delay. GP practices are open as usual, but you must make an appointment.
“We know that during the Covid-19 pandemic, people may feel reluctant to come to their GP’s practice, but we are available to meet them in person, and all safety protocols are in place. Once cancer is diagnosed, GPs play an important and supportive role on the cancer journey.”
Daffodil Day takes place this Friday and the Irish Cancer Society is appealing to the public to give what they can at Cancer.ie so we can support people through our free services.
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