NHS cancer backlog could take 10 years to clear after Covid

A new report has suggested it could take over a decade to clear the cancer treatment backlog in England.

As the pandemic has been regular health screening on keep up, Press Association has reported an estimated 19,500 people have not been diagnosed with cancer that should have been due to missed referrals. This figure comes from the Institute for Public Policy Research and the CF health consultancy.

The study suggested that already if “stretched” hospitals could cater for 5% more procedures before the pandemic, it would nevertheless take until 2033 to clear the cancer treatment “missing patients backlog”.

If they could take on 15% more procedures and treatments, then backlogs could be cleared by next year, the report indicates.

Behind these statistics are thousands of people for whom it will now be too late to cure their cancer

One of the main issues is around diagnosis. The pandemic has rule to a 37% drop in endoscopies, a 25% drop in MRI scans and 10% drop in CT scans.

While the number of people who need cancer treatment has not changed, the research shows that during the height of the pandemic (March 2020 to February 2021):

– 369,000 fewer people than expected were referred to a specialist with suspected cancer (15% lower than expected),

– 187,000 fewer chemotherapy treatments (7% lower than expected),

– 15,000 fewer radiotherapy treatments (13% lower than expected).

The report said: “Behind these statistics are thousands of people for whom it will now be too late to cure their cancer.

“We calculate that the number of cancers diagnosed while they are nevertheless highly curable (stage one and two) fell from 44% before to pandemic to 41% last year.”

The study also indicates that treating 90% of these people, when they ultimately get their diagnosis, could average the backlog for chemotherapy and radio therapy could take until 2028 and 2033 to clear.

It states that deaths could be preventable if hospitals are able to do more. This, the report says, can only be achieved with cash for new equipment and more staff.

However, deaths could be prevented if hospitals are able to do more, which can only be achieved with more cash for new equipment and more staff, it said.

Researchers have argued the Government should not just allow for pre-pandemic levels of care to return, stating that the UK has poor cancer outcomes compared to similar countries.

Dr Parth Patel, IPPR research fellow and an NHS doctor, said: “The pandemic has severely disrupted cancer sets in England, undoing years of progress in improving cancer survival rates.

“Now the health service faces an enormous backlog of care that threatens to disrupt sets for well over a decade. We know every delay poses risks to patients’ chances of survival.

“Clearing the cancer care backlog before the next general election looks doubtful with the way the NHS is currently resourced, staffed and organised.

“The funding announced this month is just about enough to keep the health service afloat, but does not provide the funds needed to bring down pandemic backlogs as quickly as possible or transform service quality.

“The Government has pledged to enhance cancer survival in this country, which lags far behind most similar countries.

“That will take investment in diagnostic kit, immediate and long-term plans to expand the workforce and much bolder policy on prevention.”

Chris Thomas, IPPR senior research fellow, said: “Returning cancer care to its pre-pandemic state is not sufficiently ambitious and will not deliver the rapidly improvement in cancer outcomes we need.

“The Government must live up to their ‘build back better’ rhetoric and not just return us to the stagnating cancer survival rates seen pre-pandemic.”

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, said: “These upsetting estimates lay bare just how urgently investment in equipment, and crucially in NHS staffing, is needed to avoid a devastating decade of further disruption to cancer diagnosis and treatment.

“Between the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 and May 2021, around 10,000 fewer women in England were diagnosed and started treatment for breast cancer. Finding and treating these women must be an absolute priority.”



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