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Continuing impact of COVID on diagnostics and treatment of non-COVID patients

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There was a hope that the number of deaths from COVID-19 would decline and the infection rate would start slowing, easing the intense pressure on the NHS.

This decline would open up the NHS again to those patients with suspected cancer, heart disease and other treatable conditions to ensure that they are seen and diagnosed as quickly as possible and those already diagnosed have their treatments re-instated and expedited.

Tragically, the resurgence of the virus means that there is likely to be a rise in the number of avoidable deaths among those with other non-COVID related conditions, which potentially could far exceed the numbers we have already sadly lost to the virus.

Cancer care in England for example has faced major disruption during the pandemic. Patients with symptoms of cancer, who should be given an urgent referral to be seen at hospital within two weeks, have once again not been able to see their GPs face-to face or easily get any form of diagnosis because of the re-imposed lockdown restrictions. There has also been a drop in the numbers of patients being assessed by a cancer specialist even after they have managed to obtain a GP referral.

According to the BBC, the number of people waiting over a year for hospital treatment in England has hit its highest levels since 2008. At the end of September nearly 140,000 people on the waiting list for treatments such as knee and hip operations had waited, often in a great deal of pain, for over a year.

Sharon Banga, Senior Associate in Shoosmiths clinical negligence team comments:

“The NHS has done, and continues to do, an outstanding job coping with such an unprecedented pandemic. Treating and caring for patients who have suffered from COVID-19 is, understandably, the main focus at present. However, If the decision to exclude non COVID patients from hospitals is to protect them from contracting the virus, the risk is that they will suffer an early death in any case due to the need for time-critical lifesaving or prolonging treatments.

Peter Walsh, Chief Executive of patient safety charity, AVMA is also concerned:

“Every effort must be made to ensure that potentially urgent diagnostics and treatment remains accessible for non-COVID patients as well as treating those with the virus. Full use should be made of private hospitals and where appropriate Nightingale hospitals to enable this to happen. It is no exaggeration to say that, unless this does happen, we will see avoidable death and harm caused on a comparable scale to that caused by the virus itself.”

Professor Gordon Wishart, Chief Medical Officer at Check4Cancer and Visiting Professor of Cancer Surgery at Anglia Ruskin School of Medicine has similar concerns over cancer treatments in particular:

“Macmillan recently warned that 50,000 cancers remained undiagnosed due to COVID and the resultant lockdown. As we enter a second lockdown, further disruption to cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment is likely during the next six months. Cancer backlog will increase, and UK cancer survival rates will drop even lower than reported in April 2019 by CRUK.”

Sharon concludes:

“People understand the challenges that the NHS faces and accept that waiting lists are long and that inevitably the service will be stressed, despite heroic efforts by NHS staff. The likely further delay and disruption caused by the second lockdown means it is even  more important that those patients with cancer and the other health issues - adversely affected by COVID-19 related delays to their urgent treatment right now - are at the forefront of the thoughts of those planning the next steps that should be taken by the NHS.”

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