COVID-19 has had a significant impact on healthcare services. At the start of the national lockdown in March 2020, most cancer screening was suspended, and many routine diagnostic tests were cancelled, with only very urgent cases prioritised for diagnosis.
Impact of delayed diagnosis due to COVID-19
Delayed diagnosis and cancelled diagnostics due to COVID-19 is having serious consequences for patient safety. It is causing significant pain and suffering, worsening many medical conditions, and putting thousands of people’s lives at risk. Tragically, in some cases, patients have died due to delays in diagnoses for serious illnesses, such as cancer.
At the height of the pandemic, dedicated doctors, nurses, and frontline support staff worked long hours to look after critically ill COVID-19. However, the focus on coronavirus meant that tens of thousands of people with potentially life-threatening conditions found their appointments for screening, blood tests, MRI scans, CT scans and biopsies cancelled or delayed.
A wide range of conditions have been impacted by diagnosis delays including:
Cancers such as lung cancer, bowel cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, breast cancer, oesophageal cancer, and cervical cancer
Chronic kidney disease
Diabetes and diabetes complications
Coronary heart disease
Chronic lung conditions
Diagnostic delays due to COVID-19 have caused widespread concern throughout the medical profession.
According to the British Medical Association (BMA), millions of patients have missed vital opportunities to receive initial assessment and diagnosis for potentially life-threatening health problems. It estimates that in April, May, and June 2020 in England there were 2.47 million and 2.60 million fewer first outpatient appointments (the first time a patient is seen by a consultant) creating a significant backlog of increasingly urgent care needs.
NHS cancer diagnosis delays
During the UK-wide COVID-19 lockdown, most NHS cancer screening and routine outpatient referrals (through which 30-40% of cancer patients are diagnosed) were suspended.
The only route to diagnosis for suspected cancer cases was through a GP referral; however when social distancing measures were introduced in March 2020, urgent referrals fell by up to 80%[Source: King’s College].
According to Cancer Research UK, between April and August 2020, around 350,000 fewer people with suspected cancer symptoms were urgently referred than normal in the UK. This is due to a combination of patients not going to their GP and GPs having difficulty referring them.
Shockingly, Cancer Research UK reports that in England between March and July 2020, there was a 39% drop in the seven key diagnostic tests that are often used to diagnose cancer (endoscopies including flexi-sigmoidoscopy, cystoscopy, and gastroscopy, CT scans, ultrasound, and MRI. This is equivalent to around 3.2 million fewer tests compared to the same period last year.
The prognosis for many of these untreated and undetected cancers will worsen over time and require more urgent treatment. Very sadly, there will be substantial increases in the number of avoidable cancer deaths in England due to COVID-19 diagnostic delays with some experts stating it could cause up to 35,000 extra deaths [Source: Nursing in Practice].
If you or a family member has been affected by NHS cancer diagnosis delays and cancellations, contact our specialist medical negligence team. Call us today for a free, no obligation chat on Freephone 0800 884 0777, email email@example.com or contact us online.
Diagnosis delays and risk to patients’ lives
For many serious conditions, getting a quick and early diagnosis is essential to ensure prompt treatment to improve chances of recovery and to prevent potentially life-threatening complications or diseases worsening.
Sherwin Hall is a case in point. Throughout March and April 2020, he desperately tried to get an MRI scan so that his condition could be accurately diagnosed. After 13 visits to A&E in agonising pain, he was finally given a scan which revealed a 14cm malignant tumour in his pelvis and 30 small tumours in his lungs.
Tragically, Sherwin died on 3 December 2020 from a rare, aggressive sarcoma. Before he died, Sherwin bravely shared his story in the press to raise awareness of the impact of diagnosis delays in cancer patients. He has featured in articles including The Guardian, BBC One’s Panorama, BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show, and the Daily Mail.
NHS diagnosis delays and medical negligence
Novum Law’s specialist medical negligence team have been contacted by many patients and their loved ones who have been harmed due to NHS COVID-19 diagnosis delays and cancellations.
Many people are extremely worried about how delays and cancellations to urgent diagnostics including MRI scans, ultrasound scans, CT scans, X-rays, blood tests and biopsies have affected their health.
Novum Law upholds the principle that everyone has the right to access healthcare when they need it. The NHS Constitution and the law recognises this, as does Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This makes it clear that the Government has a systemic duty to have a properly functioning healthcare framework in place to protect patients’ lives.
Our solicitors and lawyers back AvMA (Action against Medical Accidents), the patient safety and justice charity and Patient Safety Learning. We have joined forces with them to ask the Government to take urgent steps to clear the huge backlog of patients waiting for diagnostics and treatment.
If you or a family member has concerns that delays and cancellations to medical tests, scans and other important diagnostics has had a detrimental impact on your health, contact us today on 0800 884 0777, email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us online.
Frequently Asked Questions
COVID-19 has had a huge impact on core NHS services. To free up enough capacity to deal with the initial peak of the pandemic, the NHS was forced to shut down or significantly reduce many areas of non-COVID care. In many areas, it seems tests, screening, and routine diagnostics were cancelled or postponed.
Delayed diagnosis can mean more invasive or intensive treatment than might otherwise have been required. For a cancer patient, this could mean more extensive surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Sometimes, these treatments bring with them increased risks of other complications or side effects such as loss of fertility, lymphedema and the risk of developing other cancers or illnesses as a side effect of treatment.
Yes. Medical care and treatment can often be time critical. In some serious conditions, such as cancer, any delays in diagnosis can result in the cancer spreading, making it less treatable and reducing a patient’s chances of survival, either in the short or longer term.
If you are still waiting for a diagnosis, you should contact your GP in the first instance. If this does not help, you can complain via the Practice Manager at your GP Surgery.
If you believe a current diagnosis delay is making your health worse, you can get in touch with one of our experienced medical negligence lawyers who may be able to intervene for you.
Yes, if you have experienced avoidable harm due to COVID-19 diagnosis delays, you may be able to make a medical negligence claim.
However, it is vital to get expert legal advice from a specialist medical negligence lawyer. You will need to prove you have suffered due to an unreasonable delay to your diagnosis. Every situation is unique and the success of your claim will depend on the severity of your situation and the resources available at your local healthcare service at that time.
If you have a question that is not listed above, please visit our FAQs page. Alternatively, please call our specialist team on Freephone 0800 884 0777 or contact us online for a free, no-obligation chat.
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Real life experiences
Delayed diagnosis due to Covid-19
Sherwin was left 'fighting for life' following a delayed cancer diagnosis due to Covid-19
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