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'Covid fear' effect as GP referrals for vital cancer tests plummet

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Dr Colm Henry says virus has affected cancer screening

Dr Colm Henry says virus has affected cancer screening

Dr Colm Henry says virus has affected cancer screening

Growing numbers of people are at risk of delayed cancer diagnosis as hospital Rapid Access lung and prostate clinics suffer a significant fall in patients referred for tests by their family doctor.

Electronic GP referrals of patients with potential symptoms of lung cancer to Rapid Access clinics have plummeted by 41pc.

They are down to just 26 cases a week in May, from 44 in January before Covid-19 hit.

The number of patients sent by GPs to the clinics, which can detect prostate cancer, have also dropped during that time by 28.9pc, down from 72 a week to 51, figures obtained by the Herald have revealed.

The worry is that despite more routine hospital care being back and running, the "Covid fear" effect is still deterring older patients in particular from getting their symptoms checked.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death here, accounting for 20pc of cancer deaths in women and 22pc in men.

During the height of the crisis in late March and April, the average attendances at clinics for suspected breast, lung and prostate cancer halved.

Reluctance

The number of women seeking a breast cancer diagnosis has now recovered and is back to 801 a week after falling to as low as 289 in March and April.

There is also a recovery in skin cancer clinics after a fall of 75.4pc when panic about Covid-19 and the "stay at home" message was at its height.

Dublin GP Dr Mel Bates said there was "still a reluctance" among older age groups who are at higher risk of cancer to contact their GP due to concerns about the virus.

"People are saying it will be OK," he said. "We are seeing more people presenting later.

"They may have had a pain for some time which is not going away."

He pointed out that GPs may also be opting to refer urgent patients to hospital emergency departments, which have been quieter. The patients have been able to get a diagnosis of symptoms through that route.

HSE chief clinical adviser Dr Colm Henry said Rapid Access clinics for cancer detection are now a priority.

He urged anyone with potential signs and symptoms of cancer to telephone their GP to check them out.

A HSE spokeswoman said: "Services have been reorganised and precautionary measures taken to ensure surgeries and hospital environments are safe for patients. All healthcare staff have been trained and equipped to help prevent the spread of Covid-19."

There is a growing concern among doctors that patients with serious illnesses are suffering from the "collateral damage" of the pandemic.

There is still no date for the resumption of cancer screening programmes CervicalCheck, BreastCheck and BowelScreen.

They may not be ready to be up and running until next autumn. The three programmes pick up around 1,700 cancers a year in people who are invited for screening and unaware they have the disease.

Meanwhile, it has emerged the HSE failed to meet key national targets for treating breast cancer patients last year and then sought to reduce them for 2020.

The health service said there was "increased anxiety" in the BreastCheck screening service ahead of forthcoming legal cases, and hospitals were already struggling with a lack of staff.

The HSE said "unattainable targets" would increase public pressure "if BreastCheck comes into the public domain".

Under the BreastCheck programme, the HSE aims to arrange hospital admission for anyone diagnosed with breast cancer within three weeks.

It has set a target to achieve this in 95pc of cases.