Patients with terminal illnesses ‘dying in pain’ because of NHS Covid delays

·4-min read
Marie Curie is calling for the Health and Care Bill to be amended so local NHS teams are legally required to provide specialist palliative care services across England - Kierran Dodds
Marie Curie is calling for the Health and Care Bill to be amended so local NHS teams are legally required to provide specialist palliative care services across England - Kierran Dodds

Nearly nine in 10 hospices have revealed that patients are being referred to them with terminal illnesses as a result of Covid-related NHS delays in diagnosis and treatment.

Marie Curie, one of the UK's biggest providers of hospices, warned it meant that patients were dying in pain because delays from health service treatment backlogs meant they could not access palliative care in time.

Only 17 per cent of practitioners surveyed felt patients were being referred in a timely manner so that they could fully benefit from specialist palliative care.

And 87 per cent said they were seeing patients presenting as terminal because of a late diagnosis or a delay in treatment due to the backlog, according to the survey of 130 practitioners by Marie Curie and the Association for Palliative Medicine.

Dr Sarah Holmes, Marie Curie's medical director, said: "There are cases where people are being diagnosed with their illness at a point when it is no longer possible to treat it to cure it. And there are those being diagnosed at a point where there might not be the same treatment options available because their condition has got so bad."

Dr Holmes said the causes were multi-faceted, ranging from people who might be in pain but delayed seeking treatment to protect the NHS during the pandemic to GPs, social care and hospitals overburdened with Covid leading to delays in diagnosis and treatment.

Marie Curie is calling for the Health and Care Bill, set to be debated in the House of Lords on Thursday, to be amended so local NHS teams are legally required to provide specialist palliative care services across England.

‘Why wasn’t something done sooner?’

One 71-year-old woman waited nearly five months in pain before she was booked in for a diagnosis which revealed that her cancer, which had been remission for five years, had spread to her spine, lungs and abdomen.

She died at home six weeks later with her family struggling to ease the agony that their mother, a former civil servant, was suffering. Her daughter, Joanne Aitken, told The Telegraph how the family desperately called 111 for help in treating her mother, Margaret, for her "unbelievable pain".

"It was left down to us. She was struggling to eat. She was struggling to swallow. She was fed up taking tablets. Someone with terminal cancer should have someone who specialises in pain management," said Ms Aitken. "If they had acted earlier, we could have had proper palliative care.

"Given my Mum's health history and the fact she'd started calling the GP repeatedly for pain problems when she hadn't before, why didn't somebody notice something was wrong? Why wasn't something done sooner?

"If she had been given the scan when she first told them about her back pains, and if she'd had her chemotherapy when she'd have been well enough to cope with it, she might still have been here for a little bit longer.

"But because everything was delayed, by the time they came to give her the chemotherapy I knew she wasn't well enough to have coped with what chemotherapy would have done to her body. I just knew. She was too weak. If they'd looked into her pain sooner, it might have been a completely different story. All this suffering could have been avoided."

The disclosure follows data showing that the number of routine cancer referrals has fallen by nine million during the pandemic, with urgent referrals down by one million.

Nearly one third (32 per cent) of patients are not starting their initial cancer treatment within 62 days of urgent GP referral, the highest number for 12 years.

Seventy-one per cent of practitioners said NHS professionals were missing opportunities to refer patients, and 72 per cent believed they were not recognising when patients needed specialist palliative care.

Almost three-quarters felt there had not been sufficient capacity to deliver specialist palliative in care homes and people’s own homes, and more than half (52 per cent) said capacity had also been lacking in hospitals and hospices.

Ninety-three per cent felt either unconfident or unsure that there would be sufficient capacity to deliver high-quality specialist palliative care in 10 years time, with 57 per cent saying they were unconfident or very unconfident about this.

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