Medical Negligence

Coronavirus: The impact on NHS cancer diagnosis and treatment

Estimated read time: 3 mins

Charlotte Todd, September 16, 2020

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK, many patients awaiting cancer testing, diagnosis or treatment have been left wondering where they stand.

Here, First4Lawyers investigates the extent of the backlog to cancer treatment caused by the pandemic.

How has the backlog affected cancer treatment?

Many cancer patients are experiencing extended delays – sometimes spanning several months – for their cancer treatment. This includes operations to remove tumours, which were delayed because of the pandemic.

Under normal circumstances, the NHS operates a two-week wait urgent pathway to referral. According to Cancer Research UK, this is designed to ensure those with suspected cancers are diagnosed as quickly as possible to increase the likelihood a cancer can be treated successfully.

However, Cancer Research UK has found that over 2.1 million people in the UK were left waiting for cancer screening for breast, bowel or cervical cancers after the services were paused.

Although some of these services have now restarted, women over 70 are not currently eligible for breast cancer screening services even if they have a history of breast cancer because the focus is now on a “core” group.

A study by The Lancet Oncology Journal found that during the Covid-19 lockdown, referrals via the two-week wait urgent pathway for suspected cancer in England fell by 84%, exposing patients who need urgent medical assistance to a much greater risk of developing further symptoms or their cancer potentially spreading.

What are the consequences of delayed diagnosis and treatment for cancer?

Delays to cancer testing contributes to more patients being diagnosed at a later stage, ultimately meaning a lower chance of effective treatment and survival. Delays to diagnosis can often mean that the cancer spreads to other parts of the patient’s body, making it less treatable.

In 2014, NHS England revealed that 52,000 cases of four common cancers (colon, rectal, lung and ovarian) were being spotted too late every year. Not only is late diagnosis detrimental to the overall health of the patient, it also costs the NHS millions of pounds as necessary treatments are generally more complex the more developed the disease is.

The Lancet study also found that three-month delays to cancer diagnosis and treatment could result in a reduction of long-term survival rates by more than 10%. Delays of six months are predicted to see a 30% reduction in 10-year survival rates in several types of cancer and age groups.

The Institute of Cancer Research estimates that delays of three months or more to treatment and surgeries for cancer will mean that of the 94,912 patients who would have had surgery over the course of a year, an additional 4,755 will die – the equivalent of 92,214 years of life lost.

How has wider cancer research and treatment been affected?

Charities that support research for life-saving cancer treatments have also felt the effects of the coronavirus outbreak.

The search for a coronavirus vaccine has effectively halted clinical trials and research in many other areas of medical sciences, with more than 1,500 clinical trials of new drugs and treatments for cancers and other serious illnesses being closed down since the start of the pandemic.

Discovering you have cancer is distressing enough but finding out it could have been detected earlier adds to the stress and upset. That’s why First4Lawyers is dedicated to helping those who have suffered harm through no fault of their own. Come back next time when we investigate the impact the coronavirus has had on patients waiting for elective surgeries.

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