New study shows impact of COVID-19 on radiotherapy services

Saturday 23 January 2021

New research by clinical oncologists has revealed how COVID-19 impacted the delivery of radiotherapy last year.

Published today (23 January) in The Lancet Oncology, it is the first study to assess the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on radiotherapy services in England.

The research, led by the University of Leeds, with the RCR and Public Health England, collated national radiotherapy treatment data from the first wave of the pandemic and modelled how many extra patients could have been treated if COVID-19 had not hit the NHS.

Compared to 2019, it shows the number of new radiotherapy treatment courses were down 19.9 per cent in April 2020, 6.2 per cent in May, and 11.6 per cent in June.

The researchers’ modelling also found more than 3,000 fewer courses of radiotherapy were delivered between February and June 2020 than would have been anticipated pre-covid.

However, the study also documents how cancer teams were able to quickly implement new treatments – such as a 60 per cent boom in the use of shorter radiotherapy treatments for breast cancer. Treatments for bladder, oesophageal and bowel cancers increased markedly, probably because radiotherapy was used to help compensate for a lack of surgical capacity due to the pandemic.

Dr Katie Spencer, lead author of the study, University Academic Clinical Fellow at the University of Leeds and consultant clinical oncologist at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said:

“Radiotherapy is a very important treatment option for cancer, and our study shows that across the English NHS there was a rapid shift in how radiotherapy was used.

“It is impressive to see that the data closely follows the guidelines published at the start of the pandemic. For cancers such as breast and bowel, shorter, more intensive treatments were delivered to provide similar outcomes for patients.

“Where treatment delay is safe, like in prostate cancer, delays were used to reduce the risk of coronavirus exposure. This was particularly important for older patients, who are more vulnerable to the virus.

“In other cases, such as head and neck, and anal cancers, we saw that the number of radiotherapy treatments hardly changed during the first wave. This was really reassuring, as we know that it is vital that these treatments are not delayed.”

Co-author Dr Tom Roques, Medical Director of Professional Practice for Clinical Oncology at the RCR, added:

“This research shows the incredible speed with which radiotherapy services within the NHS were able to adapt their treatment patterns to help protect patients with cancer, whilst coping with reduced surgical capacity due to the global pandemic.

“In the midst of the current COVID-19 surge, NHS capacity is under even greater stress. However, cancer teams are using all of the clinical experience and innovations from last year to ensure radiotherapy services continue to operate and provide the best care possible for patients.”

← Go to press centre