Cancer surgeries drop 30% due to impact of Covid-19 pandemic

Life expectancy in EU fell over a year in 2021, the biggest drop since second World , says OECD

Cancer surgeries in Ireland fell 30 per cent at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic due to the massive disruption caused to health services, according to a new report.

Hip replacements in Ireland dropped 19 per cent in 2020 compared to the year before, knee replacements fell by 29 per cent and cataract operations decreased by 37 per cent, data in the OECD Health at a Glance 2022 report shows.

The report highlights the dramatic impact the pandemic has had on people’s lives, with a reduction of more than one year in life expectancy in the EU in 2021 compared to pre-Covid levels. This is the biggest fall in life expectancy seen since the second World War.

More than 1.1 million Covid deaths have been reported across the 27 EU countries, but the report says this is an under-estimate. Over 90 per cent of deaths were in over-60s.


The report specifically highlights the impact of the pandemic on the mental and physical health of young people, including heightened levels of depression, reduced physical activity and worsening nutrition habits.

More Irish young adults said they were at risk of depression due to being unable to make ends meet than in any other EU country. One in eight 18-29 year-olds reported not always having enough money to buy food, the fourth highest in Europe.

About half of all young people in Europe in need of mental health care report that this was not met.

Schools in Ireland stayed fully closed during the pandemic longer than anywhere else in the EU, the report also shows, though other countries had lengthier partial closures.

Across the EU, screening rates for breast and cervical cancer fell by 6 per cent on average in 2020. “Delays in cancer screening can lead to many cancer patients being diagnosed at more advanced stages, making their treatment more complex and reducing their chances of survival,” the report notes.

The pandemic also forced the cancellation of elective surgery, creating a backlog of patients waiting for procedures. In 2020, two million fewer elective surgical procedures were performed than in 2019 across EU countries – a decrease of one-sixth compared to pre-pandemic volumes.

“These ‘missing volumes’ of operations have increased waiting times for patients in need of surgery, increasing patient dissatisfaction.”

“Many EU countries have provided additional funding to address these backlogs, but the main constraint to scaling up volumes of procedures has been shortages of health workers. Incentives were provided for staff to work longer hours, but these clearly had limits and ran the risk of leading to burnout and resignation.”

There were some plusses from the pandemic, according to the report, including a rise in vaccination levels and in telemedicine.

The annual report provides a detailed analysis of the health of Europeans and the state of their health services. Ireland has the lowest prevalence of diabetes in the EU, it says, but the highest rate of asthma and COPD admission to hospital.

Ireland has the second lowest number of intensive care beds relative to population after Sweden and the highest rate of ICU occupancy.

Cocaine use among young Irish adults (15 to 34 years) is the third highest in Europe, after Austria and the UK. Meanwhile, Irish people report eating more fruit and vegetables than anywhere else.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times