COVID-19: Patients waiting too long for cancer diagnoses under pandemic restrictions, top doctor warns

Many people with cancer are having to wait too long to be diagnosed due to COVID-19 restrictions, a top specialist warns.

Professor Frank Frizzelle, medical advisor for Bowel Cancer New Zealand, said after the nationwide lockdown last year, it took almost a year to clear the backlog of investigations and treatments.

"When the health system works at 97 or 98 percent of capacity all the time, when you take a chunk of time out, there's no capacity to catch up.

"And when you look at the figures put out by the national Cancer Control Agency, you can see the huge drop in the number of colonoscopies caused a real hiatus in diagnoses, and that led to delayed diagnoses.

"As we know that outcomes improve with earlier diagnosis, these delays are important and can lead to the need for more extensive (and expensive) treatment and worse outcomes."

While everyone accepted the need for public health measures to curb the spread of Delta, there needed to be a "more nuanced response" outside Auckland, he said.

"There are other places where there is no Delta and there's capacity, people are sitting around doing nothing. We have a window in those places to do stuff now and we need to be doing it.

"A lot of places are treating cancer, but it's important we get the investigations rolling as well."

Wherever possible, providers in both the public and private sector needed to start doing colonoscopies, mammograms and other tests, he said.

Professor Frizzelle said he was contacted by a patient from Southland, who probably had cancer but "can't get anywhere near the hospital for weeks".

It was likely that another Delta outbreak would happen sooner or later, and health systems had to make the most of the current "window".

"It's really important where possible to get back to doing as much as possible as soon as possible."