Published: 06:00, 22 May 2020
| Updated: 07:15, 22 May 2020
Two children are feared to be among those to have died as concerns over exposure to coronavirus keeps gravely-ill patients away from Kent’s hospitals, a GP claims.
The youngsters both died after arriving at Darent Valley Hospital in Dartford with conditions unrelated to Covid-19.
Gravesend GP Dr Manpinder Sahota, says a paediatric consultant feared they may have been brought in for treatment later than they otherwise would have been because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
He spoke to KentOnline as it was revealed more than 20,000 fewer patients visited A&E departments across Kent last month.
The Pelham Medical Centre partner said: “A paediatric consultant rang me up and told me he was quite worried that children weren’t coming in, because the wards are usually full up at this time of year.
“Parents were actually frightened to bring their kids in and some of them are either dying at home or it’s too late when they do get to hospital.
“About three weeks ago there were two who died in Darent Valley. He told me to get the message out because kids are coming in very, very ill.”
Dr Sahota’s fears are supported by record low numbers at the county’s emergency units.
The figures had already started to decline in March but Kent’s A&Es saw 25,161 patients in April, down almost half from 45,717 in the same month last year. At the same time, the number of people attending the county’s minor injuries units and urgent care centres fell by almost 60%, from 16,691 to 7,063.
While the figures indicate a drop in the number of people going to A&E unnecessarily, health chiefs fear some patients with potentially serious ailments are staying away.
“A lot of people are frightened to go to hospital and as a result are suffering at home,” Dr Sahota continued.
“Heart attacks, for instance, are presenting late – so people are coming into A&E with end-stage heart failure.
“Because there are very low numbers going into hospitals, most of them are quite empty.
“But hospitals have been cleaned and disinfected and all the Covid patients are separated – so the risk of catching it is not huge.”
The British Heart Foundation (BHF) has also reported a 50% fall in heart attack patients.
It surveyed 167 cardiologists across the UK, with 71% believing people are afraid to visit hospital during the Covid-19 crisis due to fear of being exposed to the virus.
Almost half are worried about putting pressure on an already overburdened NHS.
It is feared this hesitancy to access treatment could lead to unnecessary deaths and more people living with debilitating heart failure if they do recover.
“There’s a lot of people who will be dead or dying, or have a poor prognosis as a result because of these non-Covid late presentations,” Dr Sahota added.
“I reckon the death rates from all of these diseases over the next three to six months are going to rocket.
“It’s a huge problem.”
"Parents are frightened to bring their kids in and some of them are either dying at home or it’s too late when they do get to hospital"
The Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group says it is concerned people who are ill are avoiding seeking treatment.
A spokesperson said: “We know that a lot of people have avoided coming to A&E over recent weeks.
“We’ve heard that, in many cases, people have wanted to avoid putting additional pressure on the NHS during this challenging time.
“We’ve also heard that, in some cases, people are worried about potentially coming into contact with patients who are being treated for coronavirus and so have stayed away from hospital and GP surgeries.
“But one of the biggest worries that we are hearing from doctors and nurses across Kent and Medway is that people may not be seeking the help they need when they are ill.
“For many serious conditions, such as cancer or diabetes, if you delay seeking medical help then the outcomes can be much worse than if you are seen earlier.
“Their message to the people of Kent and Medway is very simple – we are here for you, and to support the health and wellbeing of everyone in our community.
“If you or your family need care, you can still get help from your GP, use 111 and – for serious issues – come to A&E or call 999. All of the NHS has separate areas used to see non-Covid-19 patients to minimise the risk of infection.
“It is really important that people continue to seek help early if they need it.”
DEADLY CANCERS BEING MISSED
GPs are urging patients with cancer symptoms to visit their practices amid a slump in referrals across the county during the pandemic.
Figures show some Kent surgeries have seen falls of up to two-thirds in the number of patients they are referring to specialists.
At Park Surgery in Herne Bay, the decrease in April was 58% year-on-year.
Dr Jeremy Carter, who works for the practice, is concerned serious illnesses are being missed.
“People’s fear of Covid would be the obvious assumption to make - whether it’s a fear of going to the practice or just going out,” he explained.
“The concern would be you’ve got a cohort of patients with an illness that hasn’t been identified.
“For things like cancer in particular, the sooner you pick it up, the better.”
In all, Park Surgery made 68 suspected cancer referrals last month, compared to 168 in the same period last year.
"People are frightened to come to the surgery or report any symptoms"
Meanwhile, Dr Sahota estimates bookings have fallen by two-thirds since the outbreak of the virus.
“There’s been a huge drop,” he said. “I’ve tried to persuade some patients to come in.
“People are frightened to come to the surgery or report any symptoms and, thus, there’s a massive reduction in not just cancer referrals, but all referrals.
“This an issue at every surgery - every one that I know.”
Cancer Research UK says the number of referrals for urgent hospital checks is down by as much as 75%.
An estimated 2,300 cancers are being missed every week as a result and many operable cancers becoming untreatable.
And Dr Carter is calling on people not to ignore symptoms of illnesses by reminding them that safeguards are in place to try to prevent them from contracting Covid-19.
“We’re trying to pick up patients at the moment who may have been apprehensive about contacting us,” he said.
“They should call the doctor. There are systems in place that allow us to see them if we need to.”
Next week, the NHS is launching an ad campaign urging those who are ill to visit their GP or hospital, or dial 999 or 111.
It will also call on people to access vital services such as cancer screening and treatment, maternity appointments and mental health support should they need it.