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Cancer referrals drop 60% since COVID-19 outbreak

The local NHS in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough is urging patients to contact their GP practice if they have concerns about symptoms that may be related to cancer, amid a worrying 60% drop in cancer referrals to hospitals in the area.

NHS Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) has made the call because numbers of patients referred to hospitals from their GP practices as a result of suspected cancer have declined steadily since the outbreak of COVID-19. 

Less people contacting their GPs to discuss the potential early signs of cancer could lead to patients being diagnosed at a later stage in the disease. Early diagnosis is crucial in cancer treatment, as it drastically improves survival rates for many of the most common cancers.

For example, more than 9 in 10 bowel cancer patients will survive the disease for more than five years if they are diagnosed at the earliest stage, and over 90% of women diagnosed with the earliest stage of breast cancer survive their disease for at least 5 years compared to around 15% for women diagnosed with the most advanced stage of the disease.[1]

Cancer specialists working for the CCG are concerned that people may not be contacting their GPs to flag early signs of cancer because they are worried about putting additional pressure on the NHS during the COVID-19 outbreak. Some may also be avoiding their GP practice because they are concerned medical appointments at a practice or in a hospital would put them at risk of contracting the virus.

Dr Oliver Stovin, a MacMillan GP and clinical lead for cancer at the CCG, commented:

“Cancer will not stop because of COVID-19, so it’s important patients don’t stop contacting their GPs about any potential cancer concerns either. Early diagnosis is a vital part of cancer treatment, dramatically improving a patient’s chance of survival.

“All GP practices and hospitals across our area are open for business, and they have taken measures to ensure that COVID-19 infection risks are minimised if you need to be seen face to face. So please don’t put your health at risk by putting off contacting your GP.”

GP practices are working tirelessly to continue to offer great patient care to their patients, using video and telephone appointments as well as face-to-face slots for those patients that need them.

People who are referred to hospital for suspected cancer by their GP will be assessed by phone or via video in first instance. They will be offered face-to-face appointments in hospital if necessary. Hospitals have taken appropriate measures to minimise the risk of transmission of COVID-19.


[1] Based on Cancer Research UK data: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancer-symptoms/why-is-early-diagnosis-important

29/04/2020