OVIEDO, Spain: As health systems across the world continue battling the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic, delays and disruptions for people suffering other ailments are increasing dramatically.
Suffering from stomach pain, Olatz Vazquez, 26, who worked in communications in Madrid, had consulted several doctors over the past year.
When the pain was at the point when she was hardly able to walk up a flight of stairs, doctors in February agreed to perform a gastroscopy, an examination of the upper digestive tract. It was scheduled for April 22.
But as soon as the pandemic hit the country and hospitals began to overflow, her examination was moved to June 9.
Upon examination, the doctors discovered she was suffering from stage 4 cancer – it had already metastasized. “Covid-19 is here, but so is cancer and early diagnosis is the best cure for this disease,” she wrote on social media.
Her friends and family are unable to hug her, fearing she may contract the virus. “The pandemic has done so much harm to other ailments, their detection, follow-ups, and treatment,” she lamented.
Vazquez is not alone. Authorities are investigating the death of a 22-year-old woman, who succumbed to a brain tumor this summer in Burgos after failing to receive the treatment.
The death of another woman is also being probed in Burgos, whose family alleges that she could not get an in-person medical appointment for three months.
The Spanish Society of Oncology (SEOM) predicts that the number of new cancer diagnoses will drop by 15 to 20 percent this year. The delays in diagnosis are due to suspended screening programs, delays in medical attention and testing.
Add this to the fact that many patients delay seeking medical attention for fear of catching the virus,” Dr. Alvaro Rodriguez Lescure, president of SEOM, told the Anadolu Agency. And cancer is just one of many diseases being disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
For instance, a study published in the Spanish Journal of Cardiology found there was a two-fold increase in the rate of in-hospital mortality for serious heart attacks this spring compared to the year before.
Problem not unique to Spain
The problem is not unique to Spain. According to a study published in the medical journal The Lancet, as many as 3,621 more people could die of lung, colorectal, breast and esophageal cancer in the UK over the next five years due to the delays in diagnoses during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A survey by the European Society for Medical Oncology also found that 88 percent of cancer centers across the entire continent reported have faced challenges in providing care since the pandemic hit.
Figures from the UK Office of National Statistics show that excess deaths in England and Wales from several health conditions spiked during March and April, though most returned to baseline levels within 10 weeks following the peak.
Yet, excess deaths from heart and circulatory disease in people under 65 years old remained “disturbingly high” through June, according to the British Heart Foundation (BFH) – almost 13 percent higher than usual.
“These figures further highlight that delays in care are likely contributing to more deaths than we would expect to see otherwise,” said Dr. Sonya Babu-Narayan, Associate Medical Director of BFH in a statement.
“Despite rising cases of Covid-19, restoring and maintaining planned cardiovascular care must remain a priority. Over time, heart and circulatory problems can become more urgent and delaying this care could risk avoidable harm,” she said.
Experts believe that the impact of the pandemic on the health care system has been far-reaching, with sectors from dentistry to mental and chronic illness all reporting significant impacts. In many countries, waitlists across the board have grown as Covid-19 burdens the system, which brings more people into emergency wards.
Pressure on doctors
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Monica Garcia, a family doctor in the Basque Country, said before the pandemic she spent 20 to 25 percent of her time on bureaucratic tasks.
But now in Spain, primary care doctors are also in charge of tracing coronavirus contacts and managing the paperwork related to quarantines and confinements.
As a result, Garcia said she is left with only 50 to 60 percent of her time to attend to patients, including those suffering from Covid-19. Furthermore, she said when doctors themselves are in quarantine or have gone on leave, there are no substitutes.
“But the most frustrating part of the whole thing is having to dedicate half our time to banal tasks when there is a growing list of patients who need us,” she added.
And now when the second wave is wreaking havoc across Spain once again, hospitals are becoming saturated to the point where they are forced to postpone non-urgent surgeries – some for the second time.
“I understand that a heart attack is an emergency, but when it comes to surgeries, it is all urgent. If you do not treat cataracts, you can go blind. If you do not get hip surgery in time, you could end up in a wheelchair,” said Carmen Flores, head of the Patients’ Defenders Ombudsman Group.
She said over the past 23 years of her activism in advocating for patients, she has never experienced such an onslaught of “horrific” complaints.
“First, it was people in nursing homes with Covid-19 who were not being sent to hospitals and now it is a wave of new cases with patients with other pathologies.
There are also cases where someone went to the hospital for another treatment and ended up dying of Covid-19,” she said.
Lack of resources
Flores said the pandemic has exposed the flaws in the Spanish health care system that she had been warning about for years.
“It is a scandal. We knew the healthcare system was lacking resources and personnel, and even after the first wave, we did not use the summer to improve things,” Flores added.
On the contrary, medical centers were closed as holidays were prioritized while the administration continued to hand out precarious week-long contracts to medical staff and structure doctor’s payments so that they end up working 30-hour shifts,” she said.
The pressure on Spain’s doctors has grown to the point that in late October they went on strike for the first time in 25 years.
The strike is indefinite and means that they will operate only minimum services on the last Tuesday of each month until an agreement is reached with the administration.
Their main demand is to improve working conditions and resources so doctors can provide higher-quality healthcare to their patients.
They are also outraged by a new law the Spanish government passed in September that allows unspecialized doctors to work in specialized fields.
According to the doctor’s union, Confederacion Estatal de Sindicatos Medicos (CESM) such a law will further put “patients in danger.”
“I completely agree with everything the doctors are asking for, but I cannot support the strike just because of the timing. The administration doesn’t seem to care so the patients are the ones who end up paying the price,” said Flores. ANADOLU AGENCY