Deluge of delayed diagnosis of cancers now feared as patients return to clinics

HSE said said figures for rapid access clinics are on par with 2019

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Eilish O'Regan

Strong concern remains around delayed cancer diagnosis, despite the number of patients attending rapid access clinics recovering to pre-pandemic levels last year.

The HSE said while provisional figures for rapid-access clinics for lung, prostate and breast cancer were on par with 2019 cancer diagnoses, they made up only around 42pc of the almost 25,000 cases of the disease found here annually.

Doctors remain concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on delayed cancer diagnosis, amid fears that around a million cases of the disease across Europe may have been missed.

Professor Mark Lawler of Queen’s University in Belfast, who is co-chair of the European Cancer Organisation’s Special Network on the Impact of Covid-19, said it had developed a “data navigator” highlighting the impact of Covid-19 in countries such as Ireland.

He said they had launched a ‘Time to Act’ campaign and would make a plea for governments to track down people with missed cancers.

“The impact on cancer is a ticking timebomb, especially for the estimated one million European citizens with an undiagnosed cancer,” he said.

“The time to act is now, otherwise the current pandemic will inevitably lead to a cancer epidemic for citizens across Europe.”

The data showing a 58pc reduction in referrals to HSE rapid access clinics in 2020, and an overall shortfall of 10pc to 14pc in cancer diagnoses during the year, will be presented to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly on World Cancer Day next month.

Asked whether this trend continued last year, the HSE said the National Cancer Control Programme operated the clinics for suspected breast, lung and prostate cancers. These account for 42pc of the almost 25,000 invasive cancers – excluding non-melanoma skin cancer – diagnosed in Ireland each year.

The weekly number of electronic GP referrals sent to these rapid-access cancer services dropped by around 60pc in the weeks immediately after the start of the lockdown in the first wave in 2020. Weekly electronic GP referrals appeared not to be affected by waves two and three.

At the end of 2020, the total number of GP e-referrals was at 112pc of the 2019 total.

The corresponding figure at the end of 2021 was 130pc compared with 2019.

“However, it is important to note that figures relate only to referrals sent electronically and not all GP referrals were sent electronically in 2019,” a HSE spokesperson said.

“Rapid-assessment cancer services continued throughout the pandemic and all patients presenting to the services will have been accordingly assessed and diagnosed.

“Overall, the number of primary breast/lung/prostate cancers diagnosed through these services in 2020 reached approximately 95pc of the 2019 figure. Provisional numbers for 2021 are very similar to the numbers diagnosed in 2019.

“Of note, a year-on-year increase would normally be expected due to our ageing population,” she said.

“Patients diagnosed via these rapid access pathways make up only a proportion of those diagnosed with cancer each year.

“The National Cancer Registry of Ireland collates information on all cancers diagnosed and will have more robust estimate of the shortfall in expected cancers diagnosed in 2021, once that data is available.”