Northern Ireland news

ANALYSIS: Post-pandemic planning vital for 'failed' red-flag patients

Plans to rebuild hospital service for patients who had their treatment delayed due to the pandemic is underway
Seanín Graham

THE catastrophic impact of Covid-19 on cancer services is best illustrated by the case of a woman who gave almost 50 years of her life to the NHS.

In yesterday's Irish News, retired nurse Cassie McNeill revealed how she was forced to go down the private route and pay £3,000 for tests which confirmed she had a large tumour.

Time is of the essence for people like the 77-year-old Cushendull woman who discovered she had a fast moving form of cancer which, if left untreated, could become incurable within months.

The former hospital ward sister and GP practice nurse, who was embracing retirement in the Glens of Antrim, is among hundreds of "red-flag" patients in Northern Ireland who, according to ministerial targets, should be seen within a fortnight by hospital consultants following an urgent GP referral.

Cassie, if she not had acted herself and used her savings to pay for private 'scope' tests, would still be waiting to see that NHS consultant - even though she was referred five months ago - due to coronavirus 'surge' planning that led to thousands of appointments and surgeries being cancelled.

She is now receiving radiotherapy and is hoping the disease hasn't spread.

As the health service eases out of the first wave of the pandemic and focus turns to non-Covid patients who had testing or treatment postponed, cancer services will among those given priority.

Over the past three months, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of sick patients seeking medical help.

Fears of being exposed to Covid or over-burdening a system that was preparing for a massive spike in coronavirus cases meant that many ill people, including those with stroke and cardiac symptoms as well potential cancer patients, stayed away from their GP surgeries and A&E departments.

Concerns are now mounting about how a system, which was already overstretched and had the worst waiting lists in Europe prior to the pandemic, will cope with a massive increase in urgent cases whose physical health -and mental wellbeing - may be severely impacted by delayed vital care.

As the demand for Covid Centres continues to fall, GPs are reporting a significant increase in those seeking face-to-face appointments over the past fortnight.

In the absence of vaccine, Department of Health chiefs are insistent the Covid assessment centres remain operating in a bid to separate out 'symptomatic' coronavirus patients.

However, with the north's Chief Scientific Advisor yesterday pointing to at least a third of the population being asymptomatic, doctors are treating all patients as if they are 'Covid positive' and donning PPE while using strict infection control measures.

They say the same level of planning that went into overhauling the health service to cope with a feared pandemic spike and hospitals being overwhelmed - which thankfully did not happen - must now go into the redesign of a new system.

Departments chiefs have confirmed these blueprints are currently being worked up with trusts and that "safety netting" is in place to ensure cancer patients who had treatment "paused" can be seen as soon as it "safe to do so".

For the Cassie McNeills of this world, no such safety net existed. The pressure is now on the department to deliver for others like her.

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Northern Ireland news