There are growing concerns that cancer patients in Wales and those who fear they may have cancer are not receiving the treatment they need due to the coronavirus pandemic, with an estimated 70% drop in referrals having been recorded across the country since March.
Patients are being urged to come forward for diagnostic tests and treatments across Wales amid fears that many are not actually seeking the care they need for fear of contracting Covid-19.
This is a “deeply concerning” trend according to one leading cancer charity, who say it’s crucial that patients don’t simply wait until the pandemic is over before seeking treatment.
One area that has been affected is that covered by Hywel Dda University Health Board, which oversees the counties of Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire.
The health board says that, since March, it has seen a 49% reduction in referrals. Furthermore, around half of the patients that have been referred haven’t in fact attended hospitals.
This is despite the fact that they have put in place strict pathways and infection control measures across all their hospitals, which include those in Carmarthen, Llanelli, Haverfordwest and Aberystwyth.
It’s suspected that the alarming drop in patient attendance figures is down to patients’ concerns that they are more susceptible to contracting coronavirus if they come into contact with hospitals or other health care sites, with GPs also urging people to get in touch with their local surgery if they display symptoms of cancer.
“We understand why people may feel they need to stay away due to the current Covid-19 pandemic but we have very clear designated ‘green’ areas in the hospitals for both diagnostic tests and treatment,” explained Mr Jegadish Mathias, the Cancer Lead at Hywel Dda University Health Board.
“We want people who have cancer to know we’re very much open for business.
“We’re having to be creative and do some things differently to help protect patients and our colleagues, but all cancer key workers are still in their usual roles, so if you have any worries at all then please get in touch in the usual way.”
Mr Mathias added that, while Hywel Dda’s figures show a 49% drop in cancer referrals since March, across Wales as a whole they have actually fallen “by around 70% since the Covid-19 epidemic”.
One patient who continues to receive treatment has said that fellow cancer sufferers have “nothing to be afraid of” when it comes to accessing care at this time.
Carrie Speake, who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment at Withybush General Hospital in Haverfordwest, said: “It’s been fantastic. The team here are amazing, everybody is just so caring.
“It’s lovely to come and have that social interaction. The measures that the health board have put in place are absolutely brilliant.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of – nothing at all.”
Dr Llinos Roberts, a GP at Tumble Surgery in Carmarthenshire, is concerned that people are not getting in touch like they normally would.
“Even though we’re living in extraordinary times it’s so important that people live the best life that they can,” she said.
“The health service that we can offer is different but it’s still going on – GPs are still working. Even though the doors are closed at present we can still offer advice and assess patients.
“But I am concerned that patients are not contacting us in the numbers that we would expect.”
Cancer Research UK say that it’s vital that those with cancer, or those with symptoms, do not wait.
Andy Glyde, the charity’s public affairs manager in Wales, said: “It’s deeply concerning that patients are not receiving the cancer diagnostic tests and treatment they need.
“This is partly due to people who have worrying symptoms not visiting their doctor because they’re frightened that they’ll become vulnerable to the virus when they go for tests in hospital.
“Cancer testing and some treatment has also significantly stalled due to the pandemic, putting lives at risk.
“To address this, we need to see Covid-19 testing efforts ramp up for staff and cancer patients so everyone has confidence that diagnosis and treatment areas are safe.
“In some cases, this would lead to lives being saved. It’s crucial patients don’t wait for the pandemic to be over before they receive the treatment they need.”
Speaking on Tuesday, Wales’ health minister Vaughan Gething also urged people not to delay in getting urgent or emergency treatment, saying: “We do know that some people have put off seeking care because they are worried about going to hospital during the pandemic.”
He also added that health boards across Wales have been looking at how and when to restart operations and cancer services.
As well as patients not attending hospitals for treatment and referrals, Tenovus Cancer Care warned last week that delays in cancer treatment due to the Covid-19 crisis could cost lives in Wales.
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “The safety and welfare of staff and patients is our priority. We are working with the NHS in Wales to ensure urgent treatment, including for cancer, is maintained during the pandemic. We are taking urgent measures to increase hospital and critical care capacity.”
All other health boards in Wales have been asked to comment.