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Warning of premature cancer deaths over postponement of screening services

There are calls for a review of hospital capacity.

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There are around 450 cancers possibly undetected, according to Rachel Morrogh (Niall Carson/PA)

There are around 450 cancers possibly undetected, according to Rachel Morrogh (Niall Carson/PA)

There are around 450 cancers possibly undetected, according to Rachel Morrogh (Niall Carson/PA)

People with cancer could die prematurely because of a “lack of diagnosis” following the postponement of cancer screening services, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

Rachel Morrogh, director of advocacy and external affairs at the Irish Cancer Society, said they are worried that some people have not accessed medical services.

She told the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response that following the decision to postpone non-essential surgery and screening procedures, thousands of of people have not been screened.

Ms Morrogh said the impact on cancer outcomes will take years “to be fully uncovered”.

She warned that health officials will need to clear the growing backlog quicker than is currently taking place, and also said that a capacity review of hospitals is needed.

She added: “It’s important to know what capacity is there. If we illustrate in the case of endoscopy services, we know that their capacity has been reduced to about 30 or 50% pre-Covid levels and before Covid there were extremely long waiting times for non-urgent colonoscopies.

“There is currently 19,000 people waiting for a colonoscopy. How are the endoscopy services able to do more with less?

“We don’t know if the workforce has been fully restored or are people still in roles to provide Covid services. We need people to take action today, because we are at a crossroads and if we do nothing, we are facing a dire situation.”

Sinn Fein’s David Cullinane asked whether people will die of cancer prematurely because of “a lack of diagnosis”.

We cannot possibly accept that we are delivering a health service with this reduced capacity. That means things will get worse and people will get a lot sickerSusan Clyne, CEO Irish Medical Organisation

“Unfortunately that is the case. We need people to be diagnosed early. We are worried that some people haven’t accessed medical services yet,” Ms Morrogh added.

She also told the committee that there are around 450 cancers possibly undetected.

Susan Clyne, CEO of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), said there is need for additional capacity.

“We cannot possibly accept that we are delivering a health service with this reduced capacity. That means things will get worse and people will get a lot sicker,” Ms Clyne added.

“Temporary builds will have to be the first option, purchasing or renting space will have to be the second option.”

Dr Peadar Gilligan told the committee that 580,000 people are on outpatient waiting lists and nearly quarter of a million people are waiting for various procedures or day-case admissions.

He added: “There are huge pressures on the system, there are massive unmet needs in the system already, and that in a system where we were running acute hospitals between 97 and 104% occupancy.”

Dr Clyne added: “We have to accept our health services do not have enough doctors, nurses and other health professionals. We have to accept that we don’t have enough beds.

“This idea of robbing Peter to pay Paul, make a choice between a consultant or nurse, that’s not going to improve a lot for patients. We don’t want to go back to the way it was. We want to move on and go back to a system that meets people’s needs.”

She also said that they are 500 consultants short in the the health service, which represents 20% of the workforce.

Donal Buggy, director of services at the Irish Cancer Society, spoke about the stress and impact on cancer patients’ mental health.

“We are finding that, as lockdown lifts, the stress on cancer patients is increasing,” he said. “Those who are continuing to cocoon are very concerned about the impact of the infection on them.”

Fianna Fail’s Paul McAuliffe said cancer patients he spoke to said that the “indeterminate” period of how long the health pandemic will continue is having an impact on their mental health.

Meanwhile, Liam Woods, the national director of acute operations at the HSE, said that the number of clinical staff and doctors employed has “risen significantly” during the coronavirus crisis.

“The replacement of consultants is not problematic from an approval point of view, but there has been difficulty in recruiting some consultants, it’s also quite a lengthy process,” Mr Woods added.

“I think the notion that we have adequate capacity to deal with a Covid surge and the demands of cancer and other urgent elective surgery within the system is a real challenge.

“It’s going to be difficult to respond to both the elective demand and the unscheduled care demand with the surge we know is coming this winter.”

Social Democrat TD Roisin Shortall raised the issues surrounding bed capacity in hospitals and asked when the public can expect an increase in beds.

Mr Woods said: “There is work under way. There are a couple of sites, Clonmel opened a modular build, 40 beds, which were available to come on stream early.

“Limerick are currently building 100 beds in modular form and we are looking at deploying modular technology to put on ground as much capacity as we can in preparation for winter.”

PA