Whilst COVID-19 continues to command considerable presence in daily media and our everyday lives, the concerning longer term implications of postponed treatment plans (such as radiology and/or chemotherapy) and delays in diagnostics is being flagged by medical specialists across the world. This is especially the case in Victoria, where Stage 4 restrictions have seen patients commencing new or pre-planned treatments decline significantly.
Delays in surgery and regular check-ups have also become a concern. A recent study by the Institute of Cancer Research (UK) investigated the impact of three and six month delays to cancer surgery on patients’ five-year survival rates. The results were staggering. As an example, modelling revealed a three-month delay across all 94,912 patients who would otherwise have had their cancers removed over the year, would result in an additional 4,755 deaths. These findings certainly have the potential to be extrapolated to other populations like ours here in Australia.
Taking into consideration a 2020 forecast of 145,000 new cancer diagnoses in Australia – the majority of those being breast or prostate – the window between initial diagnosis to treatment is critical to patient remission rates. From 2012-2016, the 5-year relative survival rate for all cancers combined was 69%. Every month a cancer goes undetected not only lowers the rate of host survival, but adds further strain to the health system down the track. Generally speaking, the later the diagnosis, the longer, or more intense, the treatment plan is likely to be.
Understandably, the greatest volume of information around COVID-19 thus far has been about the Virus itself, but as a community, we must also consider the considerable knock-on effects for patients, practitioners and our health system over the years ahead. A wave of delayed treatments now will result in a wave of implications later … and certainly not pleasant ones.
There has already been some great investigative journalism carried out by the likes of SBS around what needs to change now, and how we can start planning for a smarter future health system. For those keen to dig in, Surviving the Virus: My Brother and Me is well worth a watch.
In parallel, there is equal concern around the long-term health prospects of COVID-19 survivors. Ongoing symptoms akin to stroke and cardiovascular problems have already been documented. At the time of publication, we’ve had nearly 27,000 diagnosed COVID-19 cases, with over 24,000 ‘recoveries’ in Australia. These are substantial numbers, and ones we’ll need to take seriously as assess our health sector’s capacity to cope.
Short term thinking is not the answer here. While the economic impacts are perhaps easier to identify and document in the here and now, personal impacts over the years ahead are unclear, and could certainly be much worse. Just as we’re witnessing mental health ailments at unprecedented levels, delayed diagnostics are following suit. And at what cost?
The conversation, I believe, needs to shift to post-pandemic matters. In Australia, we’re in a privileged position. We have some of the world’s best doctors, nurses, hospitals, and medical infrastructure. We must review how our health system has performed, and what we need to change or start doing to ensure we’re truly future-fit. A group of Victorian Doctors are agitating for such consideration; writing an open letter to Daniel Andrews with numerous powerful points. While the true cost of COVID-19 is impossible to calculate right now, the more we can urge each other to avoid delays to personal treatments and act on our health ailments now – lockdown restrictions permitting – the better.
We’re With You All The Way
Head of Health & Medical