The 20 per cent reduction in the number of cancer surgeries carried out in 2021 could lead to reduced survival chances, the Irish Cancer Society has warned.
As reported in the Irish Examiner, despite the number of GP referrals to cancer rapid access clinics in 2021 being 30 per cent higher than in 2019, the number of people undergoing surgical oncology was 20 per cent lower than pre-pandemic levels.
Meanwhile, the number of patients receiving radiation oncology between January and November 2021 was also down 15 per cent. The number of people on chemotherapy was 5 per cent lower.
Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín, who was diagnosed with cancer during the pandemic, received the figures from Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.
"It is really troubling to see that the number of patients undergoing surgical oncology was down by a massive 20 per cent last year," Mr Tóibín said.
"Like many others, I delayed going to the doctor because of the restrictions. I’m now recovered while still going for regular check-ups, but I’m one of the lucky ones.
According to Mr Tóibín, Aontú has always believed the Government was wrong to shut down the health service to the extent that it did during the pandemic.
Cancer services are essential services and should always have been deemed as such. During the pandemic, services such as CervicalCheck and BreastCheck were completely paused for long periods of time.
"How many diagnoses were missed or delayed as a result of the closure of our screening services?" he asked.
Mr Tóibín called on the Government to provide the necessary investments to ensure that cancer screening operates at a capacity higher than 100 per cent in order to catch up.
Mr Donnelly said €5 million has been provided in 2022 to continue the work of supporting cancer services and increasing capacity in the context of Covid-19.
According to the Minister for Health, this is in addition to the €12 million allocated in 2021.
"This funding is facilitating additional clinics and the extension of clinic times, as well as allowing for minor infrastructural works to be carried out and for locum and temporary staff to be recruited to support the delivery of services," Mr Donnelly said.
In light of the figures, the Irish Cancer Society has warned that "unacceptable delays" for access to surgery and treatment can lead to reduced chances of survival for patients.
Paul Gordon, policy and public affairs manager with the Irish Cancer Society, said that the figures highlight the challenges being faced for those needed cancer treatment.
"We know that up to 14 per cent less cancer cases were diagnosed in 2020, so it is absolutely essential that our health services are properly resourced to deal with extra demand from those not diagnosed in 2020 and 2021 as we move out of the emergency phase of the pandemic," Mr Gordon said.
"The Irish Cancer Society has for some time been highlighting the need to bolster cancer services in preparation for a ‘catch-up’ trend for patients whose diagnosis may be delayed due to the pandemic, and these figures highlight the challenges this is posing for cancer treatment in particular."
Mr Gordon urged the Government to put protected pathways in place for cancer care so that access to hospital beds and operating theatres is not an issue.