Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK, resources have been redeployed and patients have been significantly less likely to visit doctors

New research will study impact of COVID-19 on cancer survival

The impact of COVID-19 on cancer diagnosis and survival will be explored through research led by the University of Exeter.

Early diagnosis is crucial to cancer survival rates, but since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK, resources have been redeployed and patients have been significantly less likely to visit doctors, who in turn are finding it hard to get patients tested. Research has warned that the crisis could lead to 18,000 more cancer deaths nationally, while early estimates suggest a drop of around 40 per cent in urgent investigations in the South West. Under normal circumstances, around 90,000 people per quarter are diagnosed with new cancers in the UK. This effect has led to widespread concerns that early warning signs for conditions such as cancer will not be detected, and more lives could be lost.

Now, experts at the University of Exeter have received support worth £60,000 from the NHS Cancer Alliance, Cancer Research UK (through the existing CanTest programme) and the NIHR Policy Research Unit in Cancer Awareness, Screening and Early Diagnosis. The team, made up of Professor Willie Hamilton and Drs Sarah Bailey and Sarah Price, is investigating the impact of NHS policy changes on diagnostic activity for 13 cancers.

Professor Willie Hamilton, of the University of Exeter medical School, said: “COVID-19 has caused a huge disruption to our NHS, and it’s imperative that we do all we can to reduce the impact on people with cancer to reduce the amount of avoidable deaths. By capturing the effect, this study can support them to prioritise cancer diagnosis and treatment, and plan services for those patients who should have had them weeks or months before.”

The study will look at cancer diagnosis and patient outcomes across the South West of England. The team will measure cancer-related referrals and diagnostic activity, routes to diagnosis, number of new cancer cases, and stage at diagnosis before and during the crisis period.

Dr Sarah Bailey, of the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “By comparing diagnosis and survival for all cancers in this time of lowered diagnostic activity, we will be able to see which cancers have suffered the most from the delays, and conversely, those which have suffered the least. This information will allow us to target future cancer research where it can have the most impact.”

The study will start in the South West because of the strong links between the University and NHS Trusts. The team hopes to extend the study nationally. 

Date: 1 May 2020