Experts at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh are urging people to seek non-Covid medical advice now if they feel unwell or have health concerns.

Data from the Office for National Statistics on 2 October shows that 42% of UK citizens who had a new or worsening health problem in the previous 7 days did not seek professional health advice.

13% of people said they were worried about catching COVID-19 while receiving care and 20% said they wanted to avoid putting pressure on the NHS.

The Colleges are concerned that if people put off seeking non-Covid medical advice – because of a fear of catching COVID-19 at a healthcare facility – that diagnoses and important treatment, such as chemotherapy, and emergency procedures could be delayed as part of a knock-on effect.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, elective procedures were postponed for approximately three months to free up beds.

In addition, cancer screening programmes for breast, cervical and bowel cancer as well as some cancer operations were indefinitely halted.

These decisions resulted in a backlog of patients waiting for consultations or treatment.

The Colleges warned that this could happen again, during the peak of a second wave of COVID-19 infections – which would likely come this winter.

People must seek medical advice now if they need it, before a possible second peak, to have a better chance of receiving potentially lifesaving treatment.

Commenting, Professor Angela Thomas OBE, acting president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh said:

We welcome the resumption of many NHS services, which is vital as our hardworking healthcare staff continue to manage the backlog of patient consultations and treatments.

Robust measures to improve patient flow at hospitals right across the UK are being implemented as we understand it, and contingencies should be in place should we have a surge of coronavirus this winter – coupled with seasonal flu.

We of course want people to seek medical advice as soon as they possibly can if they feel unwell.

However, patients must feel secure that their risk of contracting COVID-19 is as low as possible when coming into contact with healthcare facilities, healthcare workers, or other patients.

Similarly, those working in health and care must not be put at any additional risk through unprotected contact with patients or their families.

Key to achieving these aims is the extension of the availability of COVID-19 testing, for patients and staff alike.”

We believe that government in all parts of the UK must be very transparent with people – through their public health messaging – that the NHS is still open to the public and that the risk of catching COVID-19 at a hospital or other care setting is relatively low.

This must be coupled with clear advice as to what health protection measures are in place in healthcare settings, and information about what procedures patients should follow when visiting a healthcare facility.

This must, of course, include advice on social distancing, face mask wearing, hand and respiratory hygiene and self-isolating and booking a test if symptoms of COVID-19 appear.

Professor Jackie Taylor, president of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow said:

It is of significant importance that patients come for medical treatment as soon as possible.

Delaying seeking help puts people at risk and may increase pressure on the NHS further down the line.

It is much harder, and sometimes impossible, to restore patients to full health when they don’t come forward quickly.

The overall message to all of our patients is: don’t wait too long to seek treatment – delays can be damaging.

Professor Mike Griffin OBE, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh stated:

Whether it is a fear of catching COVID-19 or not wanting to be a burden on the NHS during the pandemic, we are acutely aware that many patients have been reluctant to use NHS services.

This means that many patients are potentially missing out on key diagnosis and life-saving, or life changing treatments.

NHS England recently released figures that showed the number of patients referred from cancer screening services has fallen to nearly a third of pre-covid levels, so more needs to be done to ensure that hospitals are Covid-free and can deliver care safely.

We have been lobbying government and NHS bodies to ensure that NHS workers are regularly tested and that Covid-free pathways are introduced.

But patients should be reassured that the risk of catching COVID-19 in hospitals is slight, and the risks of not being treated for existing conditions is far, far greater.

There is profound concern that the latest surge of COVID-19 could potentially overwhelm the National Health Service. 

It is absolutely crucial that everyone strictly follows the hands, face and space guidance and adheres to all local lockdown measures.

We must maintain services for urgent care and cancer treatment and the recent spike in the number of cases and hospital admissions must not be allowed to impact this.

Everyone has a role to play to reduce the spike and to maintain services.