Patients are still delaying seeing their GP about concerning symptoms despite the recent relaxation in Covid-19 restrictions, according to IMO GP Chair Dr Denis MacCauley.
Speaking to the Medical Independent (MI), he said that at his Donegal practice patients were presenting having endured symptoms for longer than usual and on examination “they have gross pathology”.
Amid growing concerns about the impact of the pandemic on the health of patients, the IMO has called on people to contact their GP without delay as soon as symptoms arise.
It has called for urgent investment in a national public health messaging campaign is required to help people identify the signs and symptoms of different cancers.
If more cancers are diagnosed at a later stage this will have a knock-on impact on cancer mortality rates, said Dr MacCauley.
The impact of Covid-19 on cancer care was discussed at a meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health on Wednesday 2 June.
The meeting heard that patients with cancer symptoms were delaying seeking medical treatment because of the pandemic.
Dr MacCauley, who spoke at the meeting, said that cancer screenings were well below target in 2020.
For example, complete mammograms conducted by BreastCheck were 70 per cent behind target in 2020. Smear tests were 111,000 below target while the number of bowel screen FIT tests completed was 60 below target last year.
On average, 45,753 cancers or related tumours were diagnosed each year during 2018-2020.
Waiting lists for treatment have increased, meanwhile, he said.
His local hospital in Letterkenny, he said, has one of the longest colonoscopy waiting lists in the country.
Data on the national endoscopy waiting lists shows that 12,000 more patients were waiting three months or longer for an endoscopy procedure in March 2021 compared to February 2020.
CEO of the Irish Cancer Society Ms Averil Power, in her opening remarks at the meeting, said delays to diagnosis for symptomatic patients after they have been referred by their GP were occurring.
“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 said.
“Patients receiving chemotherapy were at just 70 per cent of 2019 levels, while radiotherapy patients were at 80 per cent of the same period in 2019,” according to data from January 2021, she added.