The Guardian • Issue #1976

Breast screening not seen as an essential service

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #1976

The flow-on effects of NSW’s current pandemic have revealed themselves in yet another way. Earlier this month, BreastScreen mammogram appointments across New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory have been postponed as centres have closed due to the Coronavirus outbreak. There is no indication when breast screening centres will reopen.

Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) Director Policy & Advocacy Vicki Durston raised concerns about the impact this policy decisions would have stating, “We acknowledge that every effort needs to be made to keep communities safe but breast cancer won’t wait for COVID, closing routine screening programs will delay early detection, diagnosis and potentially lifesaving treatment.”

Professor Bruce Mann, Surgeon and BCNA Board Member also raised concerns about delaying mammograms saying, “When a person finds a lump or sees changes in their breast, assessments and tests are key to finding out whether it’s benign or whether it’s a tumour that could be aggressive and quickly become harder to treat. These assessments need to be done urgently to give women, and men, the best chance of recovery.”

However, NSW and ACT governments have backed the decision with NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard stating: “It’s a matter of weighing up relative risk to patients and staff.” Sarah Mogford, Canberra Health Services executive director of cancer and ambulatory support claimed the decision was made for safety reasons. Mogford ensured breast screening reminder letters would continue to be processed, and those who cancelled appointments will be rebooked as a priority.

But Durston doesn’t think that risk is being assessed properly, saying, “We want a balanced approach and we want BreastScreen considered as an essential service.”

Durston is right: Mammographs should be treated as the essential service they are. While Mogford spoke to her government as being proactive on the issue, we have seen such efforts (e.g. reminder letters) not ensure pre-COVID results.

In 2020, BCNA’s analysis of cancer notifications in Victoria found a ten per cent reduction of cancer diagnoses due to the impact of the COVID-19 restrictions – this included a temporary closure of BreastScreen Victoria services. BCNA is concerned that the same results could be seen in NSW due to these closures and lockdown orders.

The Radiation Therapy Advisory Group (RTAG) found similar results. RTAG states that between January and June last year, about 145,000 fewer screening mammograms were conducted compared to 2018.

It is not surprising that our governments don’t see mammographs as a priority because women, in many ways, are still treated as second-class citizens. We have seen how the Liberal Party has responded to sexual assault claims within its own ranks by failing to act in decisive ways that support victims. The health of women in this country should not be sacrificed when many non-essential services are still running. If any place is equipped to handle mammographs in a COVID-safe way its our hospitals and clinics. Governments, at the state, territory, and federal levels, need to develop policy so that screening can resume as soon as possible, in a COVID-safe way, to ensure that women are healthy and cancer-free.

Tags health women
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