Local health leaders are urging patients to attend appointments or anyone who has concerning symptoms to get in touch.

Concerns were raised at the Berkshire West Clinical Commissioning Group’s (CCG) AGM about patients not attending cancer appointments and fewer people coming forward with symptoms.

While Royal Berkshire Hospital's chief medical officer, speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), says the hospital is open and they want to see patients with appointments or troublesome symptoms.

Missed cancer appointments

Speaking at the Berkshire West  CCG AGM, Dr Kajal Patel, GP locality lead for Reading, said not all cancer patients have been attending their treatment appointments because they are scared of going to the hospital due to Covid-19.

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Dr Patel said: “We have done walk through videos showing patients that they can come, that it is safe.

“We thought we would get 100 per cent of patients attending cancer treatment but that hasn’t happened. There are patients who don’t want to come to the hospital.”

People not coming forward with symptoms

Additionally, too many people are “sitting on symptoms”, according to Dr Patel, leading to an escalation in the number of emergency cancer cases.

Dr Patel said: “Some patients still don’t now how to access digital services. Scared patients are sitting with symptoms. “Now we have seen an escalation in the numbers of emergency presentations of cancer.

“We are really worried about males. It has been faltering at 30 to 40 per cent of normal numbers.

“They are just not coming forward with the numbers we have had previously.

“It is a big push for everyone. Get that message out. Don’t sit on worrying symptoms.”

“We are here, we are open, we want to see patients who need to see us”

It is not just in the field of cancer that health leaders are concerned about attendance and people coming forward.

Royal Berkshire Hospital’s chief medical officer Dr Janet Lippett said: “Everyone knows the earlier you can diagnose cancer the much better chance you have of surviving it.

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“If people have troublesome symptoms they need to be seen and we want to help.”

The LDRS spoke to Dr Lippett to find out more about what the hospital has been doing to encourage people to return and how it is preparing for winter.

Making the hospital as safe as possible

Royal Berkshire Hospital has been transformed to make it as safe as possible, with signs, one-way systems and social distancing, as well as altering the schedule so there are more gaps between appointments.

Her message to residents is: “We are here. We are open. We want to see patients who need to see us.

“We are doing everything we can to make the hospital safe.

“We wouldn’t invite people in if there wasn’t a need but equally make sure you follow all the advice around social distancing and the new rule of six.”

She added: “It is really important that when people get letters to come and see us that they come on time.”

Virtual appointments also available

The hospital is also now doing a lot of appointments virtually.

“To some extent, we are trying to get back to business as usual, but we are trying to do things differently”, said Ms Lippett.

“We have been able to do a lot of virtual appointments. Our clinical teams look at the referral and decide whether to do the appointment over the phone, video or face to face.”

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Dr Lippett is a consultant orthogeriatrician, working in elderly care, and says most elderly patients are managing to attend virtual appointments on their own or with the help of family.

Staff can meet people face to face if that is the only thing that is going to work for them but she says people are really liking the telephone and video calls.

The importance of testing

Safety is also being maintained through testing, for both patients and staff.

Dr Lippett said: “If you are coming in as an emergency for A+E we test you. If patients come in for surgery, we test them. Anyone staying overnight will be tested.

“Our staff and their family members can also get a test very quickly again now.

“With children going back to school and the coming cough and cold season, we need to make sure we have the facilities to test our staff very quickly and locally.”

Challenging winter ahead

Health chiefs have warned of a challenging winter ahead, with Covid-19, flu and the uncertainty of Brexit.

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Ms Lippett said the hospital has plans in place and, like in April, is able to expand its critical care unit if it is necessary.

She said people should follow the government’s guidelines and get the free flu vaccine if they are eligible.

The chief medical officer added: “We have to get as many people vaccinated as we can. That reduces the amount of people that need our services.”

Click here for more information on who is eligible for a free flu vaccine this year.