A CORK-based consultant medical oncologist has warned that delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment caused by the Covid-19 pandemic could increase cancer mortality for the next decade.
Speaking on behalf of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) during European Week Against Cancer, Professor Seamus O’Reilly of Cork University Hospital (CUH) and the Mercy University Hospital (MUH) said patients were concerned about coming into hospital and that services had to be curtailed due to social distancing and redeployment of staff.
Citing recent statistics from the National Cancer Institute, Prof O’Reilly said that the health service “has not returned to normal”.
“This has enormous implications, and our concern as oncologists is of delayed cancer diagnosis occurring as a result,” he said.
Pre-Covid, cancer diagnoses were increasing at a rate of approximately 5% a year and Prof O’Reilly said that Covid-19 would further impact that number.
“Cancer care is time-dependent. For example, colonoscopies are the gold standard of diagnosis for bowel cancers. Pre-pandemic, urgent referrals were seen within one month. Now, as a result of disruptions to service, 60% of referrals are waiting longer than three months,” he said.
According to the IHCA, one in five hospital consultant posts is not filled as needed as many of the doctors who graduate in Ireland opt to work abroad.
“Cancer care is about talent. It is important that our public health system has the ability to recruit and retain the highest talent available. We need an environment that’s supportive. We also need an environment where there is demonstrable equity of treatment for all of our staff,” Prof O’Reilly said.
Prof O’Reilly also spoke of the knock-on effect a shortage of oncologists has on the long treatment and recovery period for patients.
“Cancer care isn’t just about chemotherapy. It’s additional psychological care, radiology, surgery, physiotherapy. Cancer care is an ecosystem, and when one of those fields is weakened, the supporting iron wall keeping patients safe becomes less rigid, and their outcome worsens.”
In a document published last year, the HSE estimated that it will need to recruit an additional 73 consultant oncologists over the next seven to eight years to meet the demand on services meaning the creation of and recruitment for an average of nine additional cancer specialists per year between now and 2028.
President of the IHCA, Prof Alan Irvine, said there is an urgent need to recruit more consultants. “We simply must appoint additional consultants, and quickly. Government action now will prevent the current pandemic healthcare crisis drawing out for the rest of the decade.”
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