Covid and HSE hacking are harming cancer services, TDs warned

Recent events crippling system ‘already on its knees’, Irish Cancer Society chief warns

Irish Cancer Society chief executive Averil Power: ‘We’re in the Stone Age when it comes to collecting real-time information on cancer services, which means we’re fighting Covid and cancer blindfolded.’ File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Irish Cancer Society chief executive Averil Power: ‘We’re in the Stone Age when it comes to collecting real-time information on cancer services, which means we’re fighting Covid and cancer blindfolded.’ File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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Cancer services have suffered “hammer blow after hammer blow” amid the ongoing pandemic and the cyberattack on the HSE, TDs and Senators will be warned.

The stark impact on cancer diagnoses, treatment and waiting lists will be outlined at the Oireachtas Committee on Health on Wednesday.

Irish Cancer Society (ICS) chief executive Averil Power will say that cancer is a “disease where time matters” but the hammer blows over the last 15 months “mean that patients are not guaranteed to get the care they need, when they need it.”

In her opening statement Ms Power raises concern that ICS research from May shows one in six people are still choosing not to attend a GP with health concerns.

She adds: “The cancer workforce is already seeing the results of people presenting later, with patients presenting at more advanced stages for certain types of cancer.”

“We do not yet know how many pre-cancers and cancers will have gone undetected due to the disruption to cancer screening last year,” she says.

Treatment

Her statement also points to National Cancer Control Programme figures from January, which show that patients receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy were at just 70 per cent and 80 per cent of 2019 levels respectively.

Representatives of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) will also refer to figures for reduced numbers of patients getting both kinds of treatments in 2020 compared with 2019.

Their statement says this is “despite the fact that demand for services is predicted to increase by 5 per cent every year”.

The IMO will call for urgent investment in a national public health messaging campaign to help patients identify the signs of different cancers and encourage individuals to visit their GP at the first sign of symptoms.

Ms Power will also say “now Covid is not the only enemy cancer services are battling.

“The devastating cyberattack on the HSE is crippling a system that was already on its knees.”

She says: “Some rapid access clinics that we have spoken to report that the cyberattack has had a much worse impact than Covid.”

According to Ms Power, “our health system is under intolerable strain” and “recent events have exposed the results of years of underinvestment in our cancer services and patients are suffering.”

She warns: “We need to prepare for a surge in more advanced cases of cancer in the coming months and years” but that at the moment “we’re in the Stone Age when it comes to collecting real-time information on cancer services.”

“This means we’re fighting Covid and cancer blindfolded.”

Ms Power will appeal for the adoption of the individual health identifier across cancer services and the development of robust data systems to inform policy.

Delayed diagnosis

Representatives of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) will tell the committee “there can be no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused delayed diagnosis and suboptimal care for people with cancer”.

Its statement says: “As some cancers develop slowly, the impact of the pandemic on cancer cases and deaths will not be clear for many years” but there is “grave concern” that there will be increased cancer mortality for a decade or more.

It says the HSE’s cancer service was already missing targets in 2019 and the IHCA raises concern at the scale of the “growing waiting list crisis” which the the association puts at 883,000 people.

“Consultants will be facing a tsunami of missed care as we start to emerge from lockdown,” it says.

The IHCA suggests that filling vacant consultant posts is “the key enabler that is required to tackle the unacceptable waiting lists”.

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