More than 300,000 cancer screenings delayed due to Covid crisis

More than 300,000 cancer screenings delayed due to Covid crisis

CervicalCheck clinical director Nóirín Russell: 'We really need every woman with a letter to come in and get screened because, otherwise, I’m afraid it’s going to impact on women due for screening in 2021.' 

Over 300,000 cancer screenings have been delayed by the Covid crisis, which forced the suspension of services and reduced screening capacity.

Figures obtained by the Irish Examiner reveal the true impact of the virus on testing programmes, which were suspended in March but have all since resumed.

Across screening programmes for breast, cervical, and bowel cancer, the National Screening Service (NSS), which is part of the HSE, planned to screen 433,100 people this year.

However, the suspension of services when Covid-19 struck in March has meant just one-third of this annual target was met by the end of September. BreastCheck and BowelScreen were more than 70% behind 2020 targets, while CervicalCheck was 63% behind.

The NSS said the pause in screening and reduction in capacity, both due to Covid-19, were impacting on all screening programmes.

A seven-month pause in services left BreastCheck almost 100,000 appointments behind target, with just over 38,000 women out of 138,000 screened by September.

BreastCheck, which resumed on October 27, hopes to screen 12,000 women before the year-end.

Women will be called every two years, said the service, but it may take three years to get through the current two-year cycle because Covid-19 restrictions have reduced capacity.

A five-month pause in the bowel cancer screening programme has meant that BowelScreen is behind by almost 68,000 screening tests, with just over 27,000 screened by September out of a yearly target of 95,000. The screening programme resumed in early August.

CervicalCheck, which was paused for three months, has screened 37% of its 200,000 target for this year but concerns remain over a low uptake rate of less than 20% since screening resumed in July.

CervicalCheck clinical director Nóirín Russell confirmed that all women due for screening in 2020 will receive an invitation by the end of the year but expressed concern over a low uptake.

The current backlog could be exacerbated next year, she said, unless women book their appointments to facilitate a “steady” flow to avoid the system and laboratories being overwhelmed.

“We really need every woman with a letter to come in and get screened because, otherwise, I’m afraid it’s going to impact on women due for screening in 2021,” said Dr Russell.

GPs are “on board” but if women are experiencing difficulty getting an appointment, they should try another practice or test centre, suggested Dr Russell.

The Marie Keating Foundation said the figures are not surprising.

“The ability to catch up will be dependent on staffing, resources, and people taking up their screening invitations," said Marie Keating Foundation CEO Liz Yeates.

"We are in ongoing dialogue with the National Screening Service and will work closely with them to monitor how the resumption of each of the services is progressing and to ensure that the backlogs are cleared as quickly as possible.” 

Delays in screening are among the issues being highlighted in the Irish Hospital Consultants Association’s (IHCA) Care Can’t Wait Campaign, which was launched this week.

The Care Can’t Wait campaign highlighted cancer screening delays, waiting lists, and the need to recruit 73 consultant oncologists by 2028.

Leading oncologist John Crown raised concerns on Friday over capacity issues in the cancer care system, “tremendous waiting problems”, and the need to recruit more consultants.

“The last thing patients need to hear is that we’d like to get you this scan, but we can’t do it for a month,” said Prof Crown, adding that the hospital system is “creaking at the seams”.

Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) president Alan Irvine said the screening figures risk further delays next year.

“Last year’s missed targets in many aspects of cancer care, coupled with the significant reduction in patients presenting to hospitals as a result of the pandemic, risk further delays in cancer treatment in 2020 and beyond,” said Prof Irvine, adding that vacant staffing posts need to be filled without delay.

This article was edited for clarity on 20 November 2020.

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