Urgent cancer referrals to rapid access clinics for breast, lung, and prostate cancer declined sharply at the height of the pandemic but are now beginning to track more closely to 2019 activity levels.
Figures furnished in the Dáil this week show that urgent cancer referrals dipped in March and April as the country went into lockdown but are now showing signs of stabilising.
The figures relate to electronic referrals made by GPs to rapid access clinics, which deal with patients presenting with suspected cancers or are showing possible symptoms of the disease. Around 80% of all referrals are made electronically.
While cancer services continued to operate throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the figures suggest that some patients may have delayed going to their GP during the emergency phase of the pandemic when the country went into lockdown.
In March and April, urgent referrals for breast, lung, and prostate cancer were declined by 27% to 40%, compared to 2019 levels.
The figures, however, also show that referrals are now tracking more closely with last year and that urgent breast, lung, and prostate cancer referrals were higher in September 2020 compared to the same month last year.
Between January and September last year, just over 26,000 electronic referrals were made to symptomatic breast clinics and despite a 30% fall in referrals between March and April this year, more than 27,000 referrals have been made over the same period this year.
Similarly, the number of urgent referrals for lung and prostate cancer are tracking more closely with activity levels in 2019.
Between January and September last year, almost 1,300 urgent referrals for lung cancer were made compared to almost 1,200 patients being referred over the same period this year. Urgent lung cancer referrals fell by 40% between March and April this year.
Urgent prostate referrals fell by 27% in March and April. Some 2,300 men were referred to rapid test clinics in the first nine months of the year, down from 2,557 in the same period last year.