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Cancer screening services remain paused for foreseeable future, according to HSE spokesperson

A date for the resumption of population-based national cancer screening services has yet to be put in place and it will be some time before services resume, the HSE has stated.

BreastCheck was paused on 16 March, BowelScreen on 18 March and CervicalCheck on 30 March following the outbreak of Covid-19 in Ireland.

According to a spokesperson for the HSE, “the pause is to protect patients and staff by complying with social distancing guidelines”.

On 8 March, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said work on the reintroduction of the cervical cancer screening service would begin after 18 May.

More recently, Dr Colm Henry, Chief Clinical Officer at the HSE, said it would be some time before cancer screening services resumed, and that the pandemic would lead to system changes. 

In a statement to the Medical Independent (MI), a HSE spokesperson said the National Screening Service was developing “separate roadmaps” for recommencement of the four programmes — BreastCheck, BowelScreen, CervicalCheck and Diabetic RetinaScreen. 

“The restarting of screening will be based on HSE and Department of Health guidance on Covid-19 as measures to prevent Covid-19 are amended by Government. The health, wellbeing and safety of our clients continues to be our top priority at this time,” said the spokesperson.

Cancer screening staff have been temporarily redeployed into symptomatic services and some staff have also been redeployed to support the response to Covid-19.

According to the HSE, BreastCheck’s static units continue to operate daily clinics for women presenting within the hospital system with symptoms of breast cancer. BreastCheck is helping the hospitals work through their waiting lists of women with symptoms who have not yet been seen due to the national emergency and the HSE is prioritising “urgent/high-risk cases”.

BowelScreen has paused inviting people to send back their faecal immunochemical test (FIT) kits for analysis and is identifying patients who have been referred for surgery and/or surgical opinion. Each patient is being contacted to offer support and a programme contact number, the spokesperson advised.

“CervicalCheck has paused sending invitations and reminder letters for cervical screening. This pause is for community testing (GPs and clinics) and not for patients already referred to or in the process of being managed within the colposcopy system. These patients will continue to be cared for as hospital resources allow.  Colposcopy units are prioritising their work in line with clinical need and staffing availability.”

Meanwhile, speaking to MI, Dublin GP Dr Ray Walley urged the HSE to communicate with GPs regarding treatment pathways for patients amid a lack of guidance on where patients in need of follow-up care should be referred.

He said clarity was urgently required on the follow-up treatment of so-called “non-Covid” patients and warned that GPs would continue to be forced to refer cases to hospital emergency departments unless direction was provided.

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