Cancer service activity ‘extraordinary’, says HSE chief

Referrals to hospital higher than at any point in last two years in wake of Covid-19 effect

The level of activity in cancer services is “extraordinary” at present as hospitals seek to catch up following the Covid-19 pandemic, according to HSE chief operations officer Anne O’Connor.

Cancer referrals to hospital are higher than at any point in the last two years as hospitals address the backlog that has built up.

There were 5,608 GP referrals for cancer services in March this year in comparison with 2,294 in March last year at the start of the first lockdown.

The number of referrals in March is almost the same as the number in 2019 and 2020 taken together. There were 3,575 referrals in March 2019.

The trend is also being seen in patient attendances at cancer clinics. There were 5,252 attendances at rapid access clinics for those suffering from breast, lung or prostate cancer which needs immediate attention.

This compared to 2,714 in March 2020 and 4,356 in March 2019.

Ms O’Connor said it showed that cancer services were now working “full belt in terms of the rate of referral and the rate of attendance over the last 12 months. They [the hospitals] are catching up on current referrals.”

Ms O’Connor said the number of cancer diagnoses has remained steady throughout the pandemic though there was a notable spike in March this year with 495 of the most common cancers in comparison with 419 in March 2019 and 390 in March 2020. She said cancer services were maintained, though affected significantly from March to May of the first surge.

Oncology help line

A total of 26 extra acute oncology nurses have been recruited to reduce the need for cancer patients to attend emergency departments. There is also a virtual oncology help line.

“It is a really positive story as far as cancer is concerned but it is very challenging in terms of the level of activity we are seeing,” she said. “Those services are beginning to catch up in terms of the delayed activity between March and June last year.”