Essential cancer surgery and screening procedures will continue in Victoria’s public hospitals following the Victorian government’s rapid response to advice from the Victorian COVID-19 Cancer Network’s (VCCN) Clinical Directors expert group.

Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services released a policy in mid-July that will enable surgical procedures necessary for cancer screening, diagnostics and treatment for the five most common cancers (colorectal, prostate, breast, melanoma and lung) and head and neck cancers to remain operational, despite a 75% reduction quota in elective surgeries.

“This policy was a direct response to concerns from within the cancer sector about service interruptions caused by COVID-19, and the impact that this would have for both our community and the health system,” said Dr Andrew Haydon, co-Chair of the VCCN, Medical Oncologist at Alfred Health and Joint Clinical Director of the Southern Melbourne Integrated Cancer Service (SMICS).

“The Clinical Directors team was anxious about the quotas to reduce public hospital elective surgeries, and the implications this would have for the diagnosis and treatment of people with cancer,” said Associate Professor Phillip Parente, Chair of the VCCN’s Clinical Director’s group, and Director of Cancer Services at Eastern Health.

“We predicted that cessation or significant delays to oncology surgeries would result in a large backlog of cancer patients requiring urgent treatment, and that the system wouldn’t be able to cope with that,” Associate Professor Parente added.

“This scenario would translate to potentially hundreds of unnecessary deaths.”

“We have been fortunate that through the VCCN, Victoria’s cancer services have had a direct line of communication with the Victorian government. We credit policy makers for having listened and responded very quickly to our concerns,” Dr Haydon commented.

“The intention of reducing elective surgeries was to support the health system to respond appropriately to COVID-19, and to keep the public safe,” said Victoria’s Chief Medical Officer, Associate Professor Andrew Wilson.

“It was clear from the advice and data provided through the VCCN that cancer had to be an exception to this rule,” Associate Professor Wilson added.

In addition to working with the Victorian Government, the VCCN has offered advice to the Chief Executives of Victorian health services to support pandemic surge planning and service changes.