Up to 70% reduction in number of breast cancer checks during Covid-19, says professor

‘Pent-up demand’ for cancer services when they resume, says John Crown

Oncologist professor John Crown has said there has been a reduction of between 50 per cent and 70 per cent in the number of breast biopsies, breast procedures and breast cancer diagnoses during the time of Covid-19.

This means there will be "a pent-up demand" for cancer services, he told RTÉ radio's Morning Ireland.

The health service now has to unwind from the structures imposed by Covid-19 and it was very important that screening services resume, he added.

The HSE has said it expects the backlog of cervical cancer screening tests built up during the Covid-19 pandemic to be cleared by October after screening resumes next month.


The HSE set out plans to reopen medical services unrelated to the coronavirus disease at a media briefing with the first of the three main cancer screening services to restart on July 13th.

The first letters for cervical screening will be sent out on July 6th with one-year recall tests and new participants being prioritised first.

Screening services including BreastCheck, CervicalCheck as well as those for diabetic retina and bowel cancer were suspended on March 27th due to risk of contracting Covid-19

‘Strong message’

What was of great concern to Prof Crown was the patients who were "sitting at home with symptoms not seeking treatment." There needs to be a strong message to those people to see their GP who will refer them for diagnosis, he added.

“With cancer most diagnoses are made by surgeons, patients are referred by their GP for investigation, a biopsy removal or a lump or an abnormal sore or some other area by a surgeon and when the diagnosis of cancer has been established they get sent on to us and to other colleagues in radiation and other specialities for treatment.

“At the moment what is happening is the number of new patients coming through has dropped dramatically. I was conferring with my breast surgery colleagues, getting some numbers from them last night, basically what we have had is a 50-70 per cent reduction in the number of breast biopsies, breast procedures and breast cancer diagnoses during the time of Covid.

“So it is certain that there is pent-up demand, that there are patients there who have either not gone to their GPs yet or who are waiting to access the next point which is from GP to biopsy which is not happening as quickly as it normally does. Inevitably as we open up we’re going to find that there’s going to be an increased demand.”

Prof Crown said that the pandemic had highlighted the fact that Ireland has “a very, very public hospital system with the smallest number of specialists, the smallest number of intensive care beds, many things which were uncovered by Covid, things which did not happen in the heat of the emergency, things which had been allowed to fester for 15, 20 and in some cases 30 years.

“I do hope Covid is a wake-up call to people that they will need to understand that we need to have the fundamental reform of the health system.”