Challenges Accessing Cancer Treatment During the Covid-19 Pandemic

  • Team OncoloMed
  • 29 April 2021
  • 6 min read
  • Current issues
  • Front Page
doctor in visor talking to patient with mask

During the pandemic, Covid transmission and admissions to hospitals were increasing daily for quite some time and in some countries still are. The levels of admissions put a strain on the NHS and other healthcare providers around the world. Healthcare systems have reached maximum capacity and while numbers are starting to fall in the UK at least, there is now a backlog of treatments that need to be delivered to patients with waiting times only expected to continue. In fact, the Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation believes the number of backlogged treatments could reach 6.9 million by the end of 2021.


Covid-19 Pandemic and NHS Waiting Times in the UK


With hospitals and care teams understandably having to shift their attention to look after covid-19 patients, even serious cancer surgeries have been postponed due to the pandemic.

Due to the pandemic, waiting times for treatment have risen significantly during the past year. At the time of writing, NHS waiting times have reached record high levels. According to figures published by NHS England, 4.59 million people have been waiting to start treatment since the end of January. This number is the highest recorded since records started back in 2007. Over 300,000 people in the UK have been waiting over 12 months to access treatment too. More data on waiting times can be found on the Evening Standard website.  

 While the data isn’t completely clear as the cause, several sources have suggested that treatment delays are due to a range of issues from the necessity to treat people with covid-19 to surgical staff being re-deployed to other areas and staff unable to work if they have covid-19 themselves. With all these factors, even serious cancer surgeries have been postponed.

Worldwide, issues are similar too. Even beyond the pandemic, healthcare systems are likely to see decreased levels of hospital activities. For example, a study reports that in Germany, physical distancing rules may have an impact on hospitals reaching full capacity and all beds being used. In fact, the German Hospital Federation reports that a return to normal routine activities may not be achieved till late 2021. And in Canada, over half of those diagnosed with cancer have had appointments cancelled, postponed or rescheduled.

According to Dr Susan Crossland, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said, ‘This data shows again the enormous challenges we face now and into the future to recover services while also managing constant demand.’ While these statistics present one image, it’s the actual people who are anxiously waiting to receive treatment that have to be remembered. People that may be anxious about receiving treatment, and the wait they potentially have to face in an already worrying time. For those who have conditions that might seriously be affecting their daily activities, delays can lead to more disruptions and even more isolation.


The Impact on Covid-19 on Getting Cancer Treatment in the UK


Cancer care is one area that has really felt the impact from covid-19. For many hospitals and clinics, there’s been a balancing act between ensuring treatment can still be delivered to those who need it most but without increasing the risk of contracting covid-19 which could result in serious illness or death  in the vulnerable too. Published online in the NCBI, Jindal et al say that ‘as cancer patients are immunocompromised and there are high chances of exposure during hospital visits and if they get infected, outcome can be fatal.’

Healthcare systems have had to quickly adapt to ensure the impact on cancer care is minimised and while for many patients treatment has been able to continue as normal, many other patients have had an agonising wait for both diagnosis and treatment. Fear of catching the virus or worries around visiting GPs has also led to people not being diagnosed quickly enough.

 In terms of numbers, according to analysis by Macmillan, clearing the backlog in cancer diagnosis alone could take 20 months. In the UK alone, 22% (650,000) of individuals with cancer have experienced disruption to their treatment or care as a result of covid. This number doesn’t take into account people who have cancer and do not have diagnosis yet. In addition to cancer diagnosis, the cancer care backlog is made up of people who may be missing a diagnosis, urgent and non-urgent referrals, emergency admissions, patients waiting for first treatment and follow up treatment, subsequent scans and tests. A full report on the impact of cancer care in the UK can be found through Macmillan.


What Do Cancer Treatment & Diagnosis Delays Mean?


Delays or changes in cancer treatment previously agreed on or receiving a diagnosis can have a real impact on the individual and their close relatives and friends. It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious or distressed when dealing with cancer in normal times, but the impact of covid-19 can heighten these feelings even more.  Feeling anxious, stressed and feeling ‘let-down’ by your healthcare provider can all be common emotions too. Guidelines have urged clinics and specialists to prioritise the most urgent treatments; the ones where if they were to be delayed could have a significant impact on the outcomes.

If your treatment hasn’t been determined as ‘urgent,’ you may be worried that any delays could cause your situation to worsen while you may be experiencing pain from symptoms. While your care team will have weighed up your personal circumstances and case, it is said that delays to cancer treatment are unlikely to adversely affect patient survival.

Cancer Research UK has provided expert advice on what to do to stay healthy during the time of waiting:

  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet
  • Stay active where possible
  • Look after your mental wellbeing

This advice will help you feel more in control while you are waiting, however if your symptoms change or you are anxious, it is advisable to speak to your care team openly and address any concerns you may have.


What Other Options Are There If I Don’t Want to Wait?


If you do want to look at other options, there may be hope, however. While the covid-19 pandemic has affected every country across the globe, different healthcare systems and clinics have varying degrees of delays and waiting times for cancer diagnosis and treatment. This means that while there may be long waiting times in your home country, you may be able to consider options you haven’t thought about elsewhere. This includes accessing innovative cancer treatments that aren’t available where you live. Time can be critical when getting an accurate diagnosis or treatment, and any delays can cause immense uncertainty and worry. This means you may wish to consider  looking for other alternatives to avoid this delay.


Cancer Treatment Facilitation Services through OncoloMed


Looking for alternatives doesn’t have to be something you have to do alone. At OncoloMed, we can help you access second opinions, diagnostics and treatments for various types of cancer. We can take the stress out of finding options by connecting you with specialists and hospitals in our network; acting in the form of a virtual cancer treatment facilitator. While much of the focus on this article has been on challenges in the UK, OncoloMed operate internationally and can help patients and their families from across the world. 

As covid-19 rules and regulations vary between countries and hospitals, we can help you find the most suitable place for treatment while all second opinions can be done over video or telephone call. 

Find out about our services or alternatively, talk to our caring team about your situation to find out how we can help. 


doctor in visor talking to patient with mask

Challenges Accessing Cancer Treatment During the Covid-19 Pandemic

During the pandemic, Covid transmission and admissions to hospitals were increasing daily for quite some time and in some countries still are. The levels of admissions put a strain on the NHS and other healthcare providers around the world. [...]

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