Patients put off seeing their doctor because of concerns around catching or transmitting coronavirus, and did not want to burden health services following advice from the government to ‘stay at home’ and ‘protect the NHS’.
Around 31% of people who coughed up blood did not seek help, while 41% with an unexplained lump or swelling, and 59% with a change in the appearance of a mole did not contact a GP.
Patients who did contact their GP reported ‘positive experiences’, with respondents expressing a desire to retain remote consulting as an option after the pandemic based on clinical need.
A paper on the findings by Cardiff University and Cancer Research UK calls for co-ordinated campaigns across the UK to highlight that NHS services are open safely for anyone with unusual or persistent symptoms.
More than two thirds of 7,543 respondents reported feeling safe from COVID-19 if they needed to attend an appointment with their GP (68.2%) or at hospital (61.2%) – but nearly three quarters were worried about delayed cancer tests and investigations.
Possible cancer symptoms were commonly experienced during the first wave, the survey found, with 40.1% of participants saying they had experienced at least one potential symptom.
Earlier-stage cancer diagnosis has been severely disrupted by the pandemic, with around 350,000 fewer people on an urgent GP suspected cancer referral route in March to November last year, a reduction of 19% compared to the previous year.
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: ‘We’re extremely concerned people have put off seeking help for cancer symptoms. The government must protect cancer services if we’re to avoid the real possibility that cancer survival could go backwards for the first time in decades.’
RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said: ‘We know that many people did not seek care during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether due to fear of contracting the virus or being a burden on the NHS, or a lack of clarity around “stay at home” messaging.
‘This has been less of an issue since, and GP consultation rates are now higher than they were before the pandemic, with urgent cancer referrals by GPs surpassing pre-COVID levels by around autumn last year.’
Last October more than half of GPs said numbers of older patients coming forward with cancer symptoms were low compared with pre-coronavirus levels in a Cancer Research UK study.
In the same month over half of GPs said patients on their list had come to harm because of delays to care during the COVID-19 pandemic, including longer waiting times for cancer referrals and treatments.