Taoiseach warns of 'frightening' wave of delayed cancer diagnoses next year 

Taoiseach warns of 'frightening' wave of delayed cancer diagnoses next year 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the warnings from the medical profession are 'sobering'. Picture: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

Ireland is to be hit by a “frightening” wave of delayed cancer diagnoses next year and, in some cases, it will be too late for medicine, Taoiseach Michéal Martin has warned.

Speaking at a private Fianna Fáil meeting, Mr Martin said medical experts have warned him of “dramatically increasing cancers because of delayed diagnoses” linked to the impact of Covid-19 on the health service. 

During the first wave of Covid, from March to May 2020 — a time of strict limits on travel and gathering when many people cocooned — there was a significant drop in the number of people presenting to doctors with concerns about cancer.

While this was in line with international experiences, Mr Martin described to party members the warnings from the medical profession:

 What they told us was sobering. All over Europe, this is being seen, and it is going to hit us in the next year. Delayed diagnoses, too late for medicine, it was quite frightening.

The Taoiseach’s comments come as new figures reveal that monthly cancer referrals from GPs are up by as much as 52% compared to 2019, the last full year before the pandemic hit.

The data, released by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly to Áontu's Peadar Tóibín, reveals that from January to August this year, GP cancer e-referrals to Rapid Access Clinics are at 136.5% of 2019 activity. In August, this figure reached 152.8%.

Mr Donnelly said the number of cancers diagnosed in Rapid Access Clinics from January to July this year was 3,431 — 95.6% of the figure in 2019 for the same period.

A study by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland said the number of reported cancer resections — the process of cutting out tissue or part of an organ — in 2020 was 96% of 2019 figures.

A 4% reduction in activity equates to 740 fewer cancer resections, leading to concerns that these cancers went untreated.

Mr Donnelly stressed that urgent cancer services were maintained throughout the pandemic, with the Department of Health and the National Cancer Control Program systemically studying the impact of Covid-19 through data monitoring and monthly review meetings.

However, Mr Tóibín, who requested the figures, described the situation as “worrying”.

"If we are to use the number of referrals to rapid access clinics for breast and prostate cancer as our metric for gathering this data then we see cause to worry — so far this year we see a 36.5% increase in referrals when compared with the same period in 2019.

"If we take last month as a standalone figure we see a 53% increase in referrals. Aontú would call on the Government to facilitate a Dáil debate on these figures as soon as possible, so we can see what extra supports or funding need to go into the cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment services in the State,” he said.

It's really appalling that our cancer screening services in this country were closed for such a length of time during the pandemic. Cancer services must always be recognised as essential services.

He said the trends in cancer diagnosis and referrals and the stage of cancer at the time of diagnosis must be examined properly by experts in the months and years ahead, to see what impact the closure of much of the health service had on survival rates and outcomes for cancer patients.

Cancer accounts for approximately 30% of all deaths in Ireland every year. According to the Irish Cancer Society, one person dies from cancer every hour in Ireland.

A State-backed report produced by the Royal College of Physicians on the impact on Cancer in Ireland in 2020 found that urgent e-referral to the Rapid Access Clinics (breast, lung, and prostate) fell on average by 58% at their lowest point, compared to pre-pandemic averages.

Overall surgical oncology activity in 2020 was 82.2% of 2019 levels.

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