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The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer care and treatment across the globe has been significant. According to Cancer Research UK, almost three in 10 cancer patients had their treatment disrupted when the NHS suspended much of its normal care to focus on COVID-19.
Almost a third of people receiving cancer care had a test, procedure or appointment delayed, cancelled or changed during the pandemic, Cancer Research UK found. The charity’s Patient Experience Survey 2020 reported that 33% of cancer patients had their treatment impacted in at least one way.
There are several reasons for the current backlog in cancer care and treatment. Cancer surgery had to be cancelled for much of the first lockdown as ICU beds made way for COVID19 patients and many staff were redeployed. Diagnoses and referrals were also delayed as some people decided not to come forward, either to avoid being a burden to the NHS or to avoid catching the virus.
Data from Cancer Research UK shows that nearly 45,000 (12%) fewer patients started cancer treatment in the UK from April 2020 to March 2021 compared with pre-pandemic. In addition, 15,800 (7%) fewer people were referred by an urgent suspected cancer referral in England in August 2021 compared to expected numbers if the pandemic had not happened.
Diagnostic waiting times were also hit particularly hard. In England alone there were 4.6 million fewer diagnostic tests of the kind that can be used to detect cancer in the first year of the pandemic, compared with the same months the previous year.
Analysis by the National Audit Office found that by June 2021 NHS cancer services had recovered to pre-pandemic levels. However, since the start of the pandemic (up to September 2021), patients with an urgent GP referral for cancer were more likely to be delayed – 26% had to wait more than 62 days for treatment to start.
The NAO says that COVID-19 disruption was inevitably going to cause a sharp increase in waiting times and backlogs in a healthcare system that had been operating at very close to its maximum capacity. It believes that recovering elective and cancer care performance to the standards required will be a huge and lengthy challenge for the NHS. It says there is a real risk that the waiting list for patients seeking elective care will be longer in 2025 than it is today.
There is no doubt that the NHS is working incredibly hard to reduce the number of people waiting, but it is crucial that everyone who needs treatment gets the same chance regardless of age, ethnicity or the area where they live.
Although we know that all areas of cancer care have been affected and that recovery will be slow, we know less about the impact of COVID-19 on existing inequalities in cancer care. That is why Telstra Health UK carried out an analysis of healthcare data to examine the impact on different segments of the population.
The analysis investigates whether known inequalities in health and care that have already been exposed by the pandemic are also reaching into cancer care. Age, gender, ethnicity, and areas of social deprivation will all come under scrutiny to see where and how change may be needed to improve care and outcomes.
The study will drill down into data for cancer surgery to help understand who was being treated throughout the pandemic and whether different groups in society have been disproportionately affected in terms of the care they received.
Analysing data such as this is crucial to help give an overview of care across the country, highlighting areas where lives can be saved and outcomes improved if resources and care are focused on the right places. As we attempt to close the healthcare gap between the hardest hit communities and those where the pandemic impact has been less severe, expert analysis such as this is vital to provide the evidence needed to show where change is needed the most.