Cancer patients are facing up to six months in treatment delays as vital radiotherapy is cancelled despite some hospital machines sitting unused for hours each day.
Results from a rapid inquiry into radiotherapy cancer treatment during the Covid-19 pandemic reveals that half of all clinicians have had to delay treatment but have the capacity to carry out vital care.
It is predicted that the outbreak could result in 18,000 extra cancer deaths due to treatment delays and experts argue that an opportunity is being missed to avoid “collateral cancer deaths” by not prioritising radiotherapy.
Results of the inquiry will be presented to ministers tomorrow.
Radiotherapy treatment is needed in half of all cancer cases and is used in a quarter of cases where cancer is cured. It leaves patients less vulnerable to Covid-19 than chemotherapy and surgery. However, it is often seen as a Cinderella service and was suffering from financial and technological underinvestment before the pandemic.
A survey of clinicians carried out by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) of MPs for radiotherapy and the charity Action Radiotherapy found that 50 per cent reported that two thirds of patients had had their radiotherapy treatment disrupted because of the coronavirus crisis.
Unused machine capacity has increased five fold with some centres now reporting six hours of spare machine time a day. Prostate cancer treatment makes up about a third of the workload of most radiotherapy departments. Now 56 per cent of these patients have seen their treatment delayed by up to six months.
The survey of 341 radiotherapy professionals also uncovered huge concerns in the lack of personal protective equipment for frontline staff and 76 per cent felt they would contract or pass on Covid-19 because of this.
An anonymous clinician said: “We are a highly at-risk group. Our faces are super close to the patient’s. We have to lean our entire body into them to move them contaminating our uniform, yet we’ve been told we are not allowed long-sleeve gowns."
Another added: “The street cleaners in China, who are spraying the streets with disinfectant have better PPE than I do.”
On March 28 the National Institute of Clinical Excellence issued rapid guidelines on how radiotherapy should be delivered during the pandemic. It ranked patients in a priority of 1 to 5 and many treatments were stopped, leaving radiotherapy departments empty and machines unused.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of the APPG, said, “A double disaster is looming in which we stand to lose as many to cancer as we save from Covid and I fear the secretary of state does not realise there is something he can do about it.
“By boosting radiotherapy, we can massively reduce the number of patients experiencing cancelled, delayed and deferred treatments, and ultimately save lives that would otherwise be lost unnecessarily. The evidence submitted by ourselves to the [health and social care] select committee clearly sets out the problem, and crucially, the solution. I urge him to meet with us to discuss how we can prevent this double tragedy.”
Pat Price, chairwoman of Action Radiotherapy, said: “There are going to be so many extra deaths from conditions other than Covid-19. But it doesn’t have to be as bad as it is on track to be. We need to boost radiotherapy as it can treat patients where other methods are currently high risk.”