About 450 cancers and 1,600 pre-cancers have so far gone undetected during the pause in screening services due to coronavirus, the Irish Cancer Society has said.
The society told the Oireachtas committee on Covid-19 that the pandemic was having a major impact on cancer care and urgent action was needed. It said thousands of people had not been screened.
Doctors also warned the committee that without immediate and sustained investment in building capacity in the health service, the pandemic would result in negative health outcomes for patients.
The chief executive of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), Susan Clyne, called for the provision of 5,000 additional public acute hospital beds and at least 300 intensive care beds as well as the recruitment of 1,600 additional consultants and the ending of the existing two-tier pay system.
Irish Cancer Society director of advocacy and external affairs Rachel Morrogh said: "It will take years to fully realise the impact of Covid on cancer outcomes, but we do know thousands aren't being screened, waiting lists are growing rapidly and there's still little clarity as to how this will be addressed."
She said that while it was pleased that screening services were resuming, “in the meantime pausing invitations for screening will have resulted in approximately 450 cancers and 1,600 pre-cancers going undetected since March”.
“Unless typical patterns of cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment return there is a serious risk that delays and backlogs could lead to avoidable deaths,” she said.
Ms Morrogh said it was imperative that cancer screening services were restored as quickly as possible.
“If we do nothing we are facing a dire situation,” she said.
She said her organisation welcomed the resumption of the cervical check programme but was disappointed that the bowel screening and breast screening programmes had not re-started.
Ms Clyne said that “we cannot accept that the health service will be delivered with reduced capacity” that was in place as a result of the implications of Covid-19.
She said the provision of temporary buildings must be the first priority to increase capacity while longer-term projects were in train. She said this should be followed by the health service buying or renting space as a second option.
The IMO said about 160 specialist registrar doctors had finished their training to become consultants in the last week or so. Ms Clyne said it had made a submission to the Health Service Executive that these doctors should be appointed as locum consultant for a six-month period. She said there had been no response. She said many of these doctors were scrambling around for jobs and some were working at grades below their level of training.
Ms Clyne said at the same time there were 500 consultant positions vacant in the public health system.
The IMO chief executive said the country could not expect the private hospital system “to save us”.
She said when the beds in private hospital and public hospitals were added together there would still be insufficient capacity.
“People might be queasy about temporary builds (to increase hospital capacity). But temporary builds are better than no builds,” she said.
Ms Clyne said there did not seem to be any plan at Department of Health level to increase capacity at any significant level. She said there may be plans to add 100 beds or so but "that will not cut it this winter".
She said the IMO supported a total population flu vaccination programme for the autumn.
Ms Morrogh said Covid-19 had “layered on top of a system that could not even meet normal demands”.
The The Irish Cancer Society said in a submission to the committee that waiting times to access colonoscopy procedures, which had been a worry even before Covid-19, had grown.
“Wait times for colonoscopies have already been a cause of concern with 11,953 people waiting over three months for a procedure in February 2020. However, Covid-19 has exacerbated an already existing problem, and as of 19 June 2020 a total of 2,627 people were waiting for an urgent colonoscopy. Of these people, 1,004 were waiting longer than 28 days, and 329 have been waiting longer than 90 days,” it said.