A LEADING consultant has warned of a huge backlog of untreated respiratory diseases as the health service grapples with Covid-19 cases.
Sweeping closures of services were introduced in March while other respiratory supports were scaled back to allow hospitals cope with the surge in Covid patients.
Dr Aidan O’Brien, a respiratory physician and president of the Irish Thoracic Society, has said the legacy of suspending diagnostic and treatment services will be felt for years.
The number waiting to see a respiratory consultant has jumped to more than 21,000 — a 7% rise compared to the start of the pandemic.
A survey by the Irish Thoracic Society shows that the vast majority of respiratory consultants in the Republic and Northern Ireland said waiting lists for routine care have soared since the Covid-19 outbreak.
Dr O’Brien said the already under-resourced respiratory services will come under further pressure due to the burden of coronavirus.
Ireland’s death rate of respiratory diseases is the fourth highest in the EU, 38% higher than the EU average.
“The statistics are bad and the prevalence of lung disease in Ireland is really high,” Dr O’Brien said.
“Ireland has the second highest incidence of lung cancer in Europe and we have the seventh highest mortality from lung cancer and that incudes countries that are far less resourced than we are. They’re not good statistics.
“Our resources to deal with these burdens is not enough, but to then take on Covid, which has taken up a significant amount of the services, makes things a lot worse.”
Dr O’Brien also said that dedicated respiratory units are needed across hospitals to help deal with the backlog of cases.
Ireland has one respiratory physician per 80,000 patients; the guidelines recommend one per 35,000.
“The resources that were in place are now reduced to deal with Covid which means you have fewer people in clinics, all spaced out with delays between each procedure.
Our ability to deal with these issues is even further reduced.
“The number of patients referred from GPs has gone down, meaning fewer people with respiratory conditions are presenting themselves to GPs.
“They are delaying and staying at home, but cancer of the lung is continuing and projected to keep increasing for the next 10 years. The number of people presenting to GPs has dropped, but more are being referred through hospitals, meaning that they are being referred as emergency cases.
“The cancers we are diagnosing compared to last year are more advanced, so people are presenting later and potentially missing out on vital therapy for patients with lung cancer. It will be a long time catching up on these services.
“It’s hard to say how long it will take to clear the backlog, it’s already packed. If we get more resourcing we will be quicker in dealing with those waiting lists.”
Dr O’Brien also said that so-called long Covid can have long-term effects on the lungs, including fibrosis of the lung which can lead to respiratory disabilities.
“That too will be an additional burden on the health services. We need more consultants and better supports in the community so we have a chance to reduce the waiting list.”