Thousands may die of cancer after urgent hospital referrals plunged

Thousands more people may die of cancer after urgent hospital referrals plunged by 250,000 during lockdown compared with last year, report warns

  • As less patients see GPs with symptoms, cancer picked up too late, experts fear
  • GPs made 339,242 urgent referrals for cancer between April and June in England
  • More than 200,000 fewer than 594,060 figure reported in same months in 2019

Thousands of people could die of cancer after the number of urgent hospital referrals plunged by 43 per cent during lockdown.

As fewer patients see their GPs with cancer symptoms – before being referred to specialists for scans – the disease is being picked up too late, experts fear.

GPs made 339,242 urgent referrals for people with cancer symptoms between April and June in England, more than 250,000 fewer than the  594,060 figure reported in the same months in 2019.

There are also delays in accessing the necessary treatments and diagnoses once a patient goes to hospital, a study by healthcare management consultancy Carnall Farrar and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found.

Thousands of people could die of cancer after the number of urgent hospital referrals plunged by 43 per cent during lockdown (file image) 

Researchers believe the lockdown numbers could have a detrimental effect on the country’s cancer survival rate while setting Britain’s progress in getting a grip on the disease back by ten years.

They have urged the NHS to ‘build back better’ as cancer services begin to reach their full capacity again.

Lung cancer’s five-year survival rates will drop from 16.2 per cent to 15.4 per cent for those diagnosed in 2020 – the same outcome seen in 2017.

The survival rate for colorectal cancer for the same period has dropped from 58.4 per cent to 56.1 per cent – the same rate it stood at in 2010. 

Cancer charities said the results are ‘stark’ and show the effect of cancer services being ‘derailed’ during the coronavirus crisis, The Sunday Times reports

Scientists examined the effect of coronavirus on survival rates using Office for National Statistics figures.

Associate director at the IPPR Harry Quilter-Pinner said: ‘Our analysis shows that thousands could die early of conditions such as cancer as a result of the lockdown.

He said a more favourable system is needed which ‘demands bolder action on public health to prevent people from getting cancer, and also more investment in NHS diagnostics to ensure that if people do get cancer, we can catch it early.’

Earlier this month, a leading medic warned that Britain has become ‘obsessed’ with Covid-19 deaths as new figures show there are now more people dying from bowel cancer.

As fewer patients see their GPs with cancer symptoms – before being referred to specialists for scans – cancers are being picked up too late, experts fear (file image)

Professor Karol Sikora, an oncologist, said cancer deaths would start to climb if Ministers did not start focusing on non-coronavirus patients, who have found it harder to get vital tests.

At the peak of the outbreak in mid-April, more than 8,000 coronavirus-related deaths were occurring every week in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics.

The number has dropped steeply since then.

In the week ending July 17, the latest for which figures are available, there were 305 in all of the UK.

By contrast, there are 319 bowel cancer deaths every week in the UK, based on an annual figure of 16,600 from the charity Cancer Research UK.

Prof Sikora, chief medical officer of private Rutherford Health, which has started providing cancer tests and treatments for NHS patients, said: ‘We’ve been spending too much time obsessed by Covid deaths and not enough trying to get our health system back to business as usual to avoid other deaths.’

He said bowel cancer was ‘common’ – there are 42,000 new cases every year – and while it can be cured in more than 90 per cent of patients if spotted early, ‘once it spreads that drops to less than 15 per cent’. 

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