26 April 2020

Doctors at Royal Papworth Hospital are concerned that patients with urgent health problems are putting their lives at risk because they are too anxious to come into hospital. 

In the last month, the number of patients coming into the hospital with a heart attack or being referred for suspected lung cancer has fallen by half. 

“In the last few weeks the numbers of patients coming into hospital for emergency cardiology treatment has fallen by around 60 per cent,” says Dr David Begley, Divisional Clinical Director for Cardiology at Royal Papworth Hospital. “There is no reason to suspect that significantly fewer people are having heart attacks, so we can only assume that people are putting off calling for help because they are worried about coming into hospital at this time.” 

Although many planned procedures have been postponed to allow us to treat increasing numbers of patients with COVID-19, we are still carrying out all urgent coronary and cardiac device procedures, from inserting stents to unblock the heart’s blood supply to fitting pacemakers. 

“It is absolutely vital that patients who need emergency treatment get to hospital as quickly as possible"

“It is absolutely vital that patients who need emergency treatment for heart attacks get to hospital as quickly as possible. Calling for help as soon as you have symptoms really could mean the difference between life and death,” adds Dr Begley.  

Dr Robert Rintoul, Clinical Lead for Lung Cancer at the hospital, has similar concerns.

“We normally get 40-50 patients with suspected lung cancer referred to us each week, but now we are getting 20-25 patients per week,” he explains. 

“We are concerned that patients with symptoms of lung cancer – typically a cough that goes on for 2-3 weeks or more, weight loss or coughing up blood – are sitting at home, too anxious to come into hospital or thinking they might have COVID-19 instead. Some patients may also think – mistakenly – that they wouldn’t get treatment for cancer while the hospital deals with the pandemic.”

Our lung cancer service is also still running, with clinical appointments being conducted by phone and more than 45 people having undergone lung cancer surgery at the hospital in the last month.   

“Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the incidence of lung cancer remains constant and we expect to see around 37,000 new cases of lung cancer in the UK every year,” says Dr Rintoul. “We are very worried that, if these patients developing lung cancer do not come forward for diagnosis, lung cancer survival rates may go down.”

"We understand that patients may be worried about coming into hospital at this time"

There have been reports in the media of cancer treatment being cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak, but Dr Rintoul explains that any decision about cancer treatment at this time should be made on case-by-case basis. “It is absolutely not the case that cancer treatment is being cancelled – in fact, in most cases it is going ahead. We are just being very careful about what treatment to give people in order to keep them safe and well. There may be some cases where the potential benefit of a treatment like chemotherapy or radiotherapy, which suppresses the immune system, do not outweigh the increased risk of catching COVID-19, but in many cases cancer treatment should go ahead.” 

“We understand that patients may be worried about coming into hospital at this time, but thanks to our high standards of infection control and the design of our new hospital building – with its single patient rooms and sophisticated air ventilation system – they should feel confident that they have a very low risk of catching COVID-19 in the hospital."