A recent report from the National Cancer Registry of Ireland has revealed that a shocking one in 12 expected cancers were not detected during the Covid pandemic. This is an estimated 4,320 cases.
The cause of this may have been partially due to patients deferring seeking medical advice during the pandemic. However, it would seem clear that the issue is more than just this, considering the huge strain our healthcare staff and system were under during the pandemic.
With cancer, time is always of the essence and any delays in a diagnosis results in more complex and costly treatment for patients, as well as a reduced survival rate and a massive impact on their quality of life.
Even more worrying is that the report shows one in five patients have put off attending a GP appointment in the last three months despite the need for the appointment. The majority of patients have cited pressures to the healthcare system as a reason and even more concerning is their inability to afford it, with many saying they are just not confident that they can be given the care they require as they continue to wait longer than four months for diagnostic tests.
Health inequalities are avoidable, they are unfair and systematic of differences in health between different groups of people. Health inequalities are a result of a variety of factors, most commonly the opportunities that people have to lead a healthy life. They can result in life expectancy and prevalence of health conditions, access and availability of care, behavioral risks to health and wider determinants of health which includes housing.
It is hardly surprising then that the majority of health inequalities exist in working class areas. The absence of an NHS further strengthens health inequalities as how can those already on the breadline be expected to prioritise their health over feeding their families, heating their homes or traveling to work.
Action is required to reduce health inequalities and address the fundamental causes of social inequality. A fair and fully-funded national health service will go a long way to reducing health inequalities provided it is supported to encourage preventive measures.
Screening is key to ensuring that more people are diagnosed early and survive cancer, catching cancer early and starting treatment fast is key to this. Currently one in every two people will be told they have cancer at some point in their life. We must ensure that we improve how we diagnose and treat cancer to ensure survival. Improvement and investment in national screening programmes, enabling people to gain fast and efficient access to diagnostic testing, investment in cutting edge treatments and technologies for all patients are key to this. Encouraging screening uptake as part of a well-funded and trained public health service is part of the overall task of improving our outcomes.
To have three-quarters of all cancers diagnosed at an early stage, we must begin with basic changes like lowering the age for bowel screening, introduce new forms of cervical cancer screening and extend lung health checks. The creation of rapid diagnostic centres across the country for patients displaying symptoms of cancer will enable patients to be assessed and diagnosed as quickly as one day. In addition, faster diagnosis standards must ensure that all patients receive a definitive diagnosis which rules out cancer no later than 28 days.
The only real solution to ensuring we tackle health inequalities and that all patients receive the timely care they require from diagnosis to treatment is a fully funded, fully staffed NHS across the island.