A leading oncologist, Professor Seamus O’Reilly, of Cork University Hospital and the Mercy University Hospital, has said that as a result of the pandemic, patients were wary about coming into hospital. He has warned that delays to cancer diagnosis and treatment caused by the Covid-19 crisis could increase cancer mortality rates for the next decade. He cites recent statistics from the National Cancer Institute,
Services had to be curtailed due to social distancing and redeployment of staffProfessor O'Reilly
Our health service still has not returned to normal. This has enormous implications, and our concern as oncologists is of delayed cancer diagnosis occurring as a resultProfessor O'Reilly
Professor O’Reilly noted that even before the pandemic, cancer diagnosis was increasing at a rate of approximately 5 per cent a year, and he expects the number to worsen as the pandemic continues.
Professor O’Reilly pointed out that ‘cancer care is time-dependent.’ For example, he explained that 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 per cent of referrals are waiting longer than three months.
Furthermore, patients are waiting longer for diagnosis and treatment because, according to the Irish Hospital Consultants’ Association, one in five hospital consultant posts are currently vacant.
Cancer care is about talent. It is important that our public health system has the ability to recruit and retain the highest talent availableProfessor O'Reilly
We need an environment that’s supportive. We also need an environment where there is demonstrable equity of treatment for all of our staff.Professor O'Reilly
Professor O’Reilly also commented on the holistic nature of cancer care. A cancer patient receives treatment from several different medical specialists, he said, not just an oncologist. Poor staffing in these areas has a knock-on effect leading to a longer treatment and recovery period and worse outcomes overall.
Cancer care isn’t just about chemotherapy. It’s (about) 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.
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.
Irish Hospital Consultant’s Association President, Professor Alan Irvine, said treating cancer required ‘speed and efficiency’.
While Ireland has some of the best oncologists and doctors in the world, with the sheer number of vacant consultant posts, there is only so much that they can achieveProfessor Irvine
Waiting lists are lengthening. Smaller teams are being burnt out. Older consultants are retiring. Meanwhile, Ireland’s population is growing and ageing, and the general incidence of cancers is increasing.Professor Irvine
This is a deeply concerning and deeply volatile combination, but we needn’t stumble into health service collapseProfessor Irvine
The solution is obvious: 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 decadeProfessor Irvine
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