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COVID-19 impact on England's cancer services could lead to 35,000 excess deaths

Published on 08/07/20 at 11:53am

New data emerging from DATA-CAN: The Health Data Research Hub for Cancer has shone a light on the potential toll that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could wreak on the delivery of cancer treatment in England, warning that up to 35,000 additional deaths could occur within a year.

The research, drawn from eight hospital trusts and originally published as a preprint in April, analysed different paths to normality from the pandemic to determine their impact on cancer mortality rates. GP referrals for urgent cancer cases had fallen by 60% in April compared to the same time the previous year, according to data from NHS England.

The findings indicated that delays to diagnosis and treatment of cancer brought on by the huge healthcare burden of COVID-19 could prompt a rise of more than 20% in mortality associated with newly diagnosed cases of the disease over the next 12 months.

This would represent a rise of at least 6,270 deaths in newly diagnosed patients, on top of the 31,354 estimated by the study that would occur without taking the pandemic into account. In the “worst case” scenario put forward by the study, this toll could be as high as 17,915 additional deaths when taken in context with all patients currently living with cancer in England.

Professor Lawler, Scientific Lead for DATA-CAN, appeared on BBC’s Panorama to discuss the findings. He told the programme: “Initial data that we got was very worrying to us. Anecdotally, people have been telling us there were problems, but I think the critical thing was being able to actually have routine data from hospital trusts. Obviously scientists like to be right in terms of their analysis, but I hope I'm wrong in relation to that.”

The team have urged the publication of national data on cancer services and mortality rates to be made on a weekly basis in order to better understand which co-morbidities currently pose the biggest threat to clinical outcomes, so healthcare services can act accordingly to optimise chances of survival for the most vulnerable patients.

Matt Fellows

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