Cancer referrals down by 80% due to coronavirus
The coronavirus pandemic has affected all areas of the health service and seen the biggest reorganisation of care in living memory. With so much focus on the virus, there is a risk that other conditions such as cancer may be downgraded and less of a priority. One research paper has warned of a potential “cancer epidemic” with late diagnosis and delayed treatment leading to excess cancer deaths during and after the pandemic.
Update 30/04/2020: We are thrilled to hear that the NHS has launched a new campaign to encourage the public to seek urgent care and treatment if they need, including cancer treatment and care. NHS Chief executive, Sir Simon Stevens, said: “(if you have) concerns about conditions such as cancer you should seek help in the way you always would.” Read more about the campaign, ‘Help us, Help You’, here.
Impact of Coronavirus on cancer referrals and treatment
The key to surviving cancers like pancreatic, is early diagnosis. Therefore, one of the most important things you can do to protect your health during the coronavirus pandemic, is to contact your GP if you have cancer symptoms.
Two week wait cancer referrals from GPs to hospitals have fallen by up 80% in some areas during the pandemic. This is in large part, thought to be due to a large drop off in people presenting to their GP or reporting symptoms*.
- *Normally, 42,000 patients per week in the UK are referred by two week wait. This dropped by 31,500 at the end of march to 10,500.
With constant media attention given to the coronavirus and so much focus on the way that it has changed our lives, it is thought that some people now fear a diagnosis of coronavirus diagnosis more than one of cancer.
What are we doing about it and how are we advocating for patients?
We know that the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on the diagnosis and treatment of cancers including pancreatic, and we are working hard to ensure cancer patients are not secondary to those with coronavirus. We are concerned about the drop in two week wait GP referrals and are in regular contact with NHS England and other organisations to ensure that patients with cancer symptoms are still being referred and delays to diagnosis are minimal.
We want to see more of a focus from the NHS and Public Health England on cancer and are keen to see a public awareness campaign to remind the public that cancer remains as important now as at any time before the pandemic.
Pancreatic Cancer Action is working to understand how patients who decline or are unable to have cancer tests or treatment at this time will be followed up and prioritised later. As the NHS moves away from being entirely coronavirus focused it is vital that patients with cancer symptoms are followed up and that a backlog of patients doesn’t form and put more pressure on the health service.
For those patients currently receiving treatment, we are fighting to be the voice for patients whose treatment or palliative care is not currently considered urgent. We are doing everything we can to advocate for access to treatments that lengthen and improve quality of life for patients.
NHS leaders have made it clear that urgent cancer diagnosis and treatment should go ahead. We are working together with the NHS and cancer charities to protect cancer patients, ensure that the impact on services is minimal and ensure that cancer patients don’t become unintended victims of coronavirus.
What you should do if you have symptoms of cancer and what will happen?
It is important to remember that other diseases like pancreatic cancer have not gone away and the sooner you contact a GP with symptoms, the earlier a possible diagnosis can be made. Even if you are nervous about attending a hospital for diagnostic tests, contacting your GP will allow them to follow up on your case and diagnose the cause of your symptoms the safest way possible.
Although hospitals are currently prioritising the most urgent referrals, presenting with symptoms remains important. Your GP and hospital team can work together with you to decide based on your personal risk of coronavirus, the best time to carry out diagnostics. That may be urgently, or alternatively, your details may be kept on record so that your case can be followed up later. If you need diagnostic tests, hospital teams will contact you via telephone to discuss your symptoms with you and what to expect. Although some diagnostic tests such as endoscopy are in the short term unavailable, others such as CT are still running and are helpful in making a diagnosis.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, hospital trusts and other organisations will be working together to find the best way of delivering cancer care in your area. In England, many trusts are beginning to establish cancer hubs dedicated to the treatment of cancer away from other areas dealing with coronavirus. This may mean travelling further or difficulties reaching appointments, but your medical team will discuss any changes with you and make adjustments where possible to allow as few hospital appointments as possible.