Thousands of People in the UK Could Be Living With Undiagnosed Cancer As the Pandemic Hits NHS Screening

The COVID pandemic has fundamentally challenged communities and healthcare delivery systems in the UK and around the world. Of particular concern is the issue of delayed breast cancer screening and care due to the pandemic.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women in the UK. The National Health Service (NHS) recommends mammograms every 3 years for women aged 50-71 years. This breast screening programme significantly helps detect and treat cancers early for the best outcomes.

With most hospitals overwhelmed by an influx of patient loads, medical organisations and charities are warning that the current backlog of cancer screenings could have serious consequences.

Two studies offer a snapshot of the true scale of cancer cases left undiagnosed and untreated during the pandemic.

One study funded by Cancer Research UK reported that 60% of patients who consulted their GP with “alarm” cancer symptoms were not referred to specialists for urgent investigation as per clinical guidelines.

Other research by Breast Cancer Now estimates that around 12,000 women may be living with undetected breast cancer following a backlog of nearly 1.5 million women needing mammograms.

The Worrying Scale of Breast Cancer Left Undetected Following COVID

Breast Cancer Now estimates that 1,480,000 fewer women had mammograms in the year preceding March 2021 in comparison to pre-pandemic levels. This is attributed to the breast screening programmes being paused at the height of the pandemic and healthcare resources being strained when the programmes started up again.

According to Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of the charity Breast Cancer Now, “A year ago we reported with concern that almost one million women had potentially missed breast screening due to services being paused in the first wave of the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, despite our hardworking NHS staff, screening services running at reduced capacity means that now 1.5 million fewer women have been screened – a staggering 50 per cent increase since services restarted.”

The analysis by the charity goes on to warn that due to the backlog of vital breast screening, 12,000 women could unknowingly have life-threatening breast cancer.

Women with breast cancer are continuing to pay the price due to the impact of the pandemic and, in the worst cases, delayed diagnoses could mean that some women die of this devastating disease,” Morgan said.

Breast Cancer Now is concerned that these pandemic-related delays to breast cancer screening could lead to deaths.

This warning by Breast Cancer Now is echoed by the Royal College of Radiologists, which asserts that “Breast imaging and treatment services were massively under-resourced even before the pandemic hit. Now, screening teams are trying to fit two years’ worth of appointments into one to catch up with a backlog of millions, while struggling with long-standing staff shortages and woefully substandard facilities, as well as slower working due to Covid restrictions.

If the Government is serious about improving breast cancer outcomes and tackling the backlog then in the short term it has to continue investing in scanners and IT connectivity, as well as push through stalled service improvements.

But ultimately, we cannot get away from the need to invest in people. The NHS needs more imaging and oncology staff to ensure future breast cancer patients get the care they deserve,” Dr Jeanette Dickson, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, said.

The Issue of Delayed Referrals by GPs

The University of Exeter and the University College London, with funding from Cancer Research UK, found that 6 in every 10 of 49,000 patients who consulted their GP with a “red flag” cancer warning signs were not referred to a specialist fast enough – i.e., within 2 weeks of the first visit.

The study, which was published in BMJ Quality & Safety further showed that around 1 in 25 patients who were not given an urgent referral and missed the crucial 2-week window developed cancer within a year.

Some of the “red flag” warning signs of possible cancer include problems swallowing (dysphagia), a breast lump, blood in the urine (haematuria), iron-deficiency anaemia, rectal bleeding, and post-menopausal bleeding. Clinical guidelines state that GPs should refer patients with possible cancer signs for advanced tests and scans by a specialist within 14 days.

The findings of the Exeter study raise questions on the clinical judgement of GPs—thus calling for an improvement in the diagnostic process, increased awareness of patient groups, and stricter adherence to the guidelines.

Dr Bianca Wiering, the lead author of the study, said, “Our research found that a number of patients go on to develop cancer after they were not referred for red flag symptoms. This could mean an opportunity to diagnose the cancer earlier was missed. We think this could be improved by stricter adherence to the guidelines and increased awareness of the groups of patients in whom symptoms are frequently missed, including younger patients.

“It’s important to note that this issue does not just lie with GPs – we also need to ensure the services to provide the tests needed on referral are well resourced, which we know is currently not always the case.”

What Now For Cancer Patients?

The concern from these findings is that there is often a low chance of survival, higher costs of care, and greater treatment challenges when cancer care is delayed. The best chance of successful treatment for certain cancers is correlated to early screening.

It’s therefore good news that measures are being put in place to ensure more people can access breast screenings.

According to a spokeswoman for NHS England, “The pandemic has inevitably meant that some patient services have been disrupted, which is why the NHS in England is investing more than £70 million in additional funding for screening capacity, so people can get the checks they need.

“Extra weekend and evening clinics will help every woman who needs a screen to access one, and the NHS in England has also been offering open invitations to get screened, so if you’re invited for a screening appointment, please come forward and attend.”

Diagnosing Cancer Late Could Seriously Affect Health Outcomes

If your cancer was diagnosed late you could be entitled to claim compensation. Mistakes made in the diagnosis of cancer could result from GPs misdiagnosing cancer or failing to refer a patient for further tests or scans. Mistakes could be made in the analysis of test or scan results.

If you are unsure if what happened to you was an act of medical negligence, contact our cancer misdiagnosis claims team who will take the time to listen with empathy and advise if you have a valid claim. Devonshires Claims’ highly experienced medical misdiagnosis compensation solicitors will support you through the whole process of obtaining compensation if you have experienced negligent care or treatment relating to cancer.

For more information or to start your free case evaluation, contact our ‘No Win No Fee’ cancer negligence solicitors today on 0333 900 8787, email or complete our online form.

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