Cancer patients in China denied treatment as all healthcare resources are diverted to coronavirus cases

Doctors told Ms Deng in January that she urgently needed chemotherapy to treat a cervical cancer relapse.

But no hospital beds have been available in the weeks since her diagnosis. Ms Deng, 56, is among the many seriously ill unable to obtain crucial and potentially life-saving treatment as China pours all its healthcare resources into the coronavirus epidemic. 

While the number of new cases found each day has begun to subside, the country remains on high alert as the virus’s global spread has upped the risk that it could be passed back into China. 

Even if a bed did open up, Ms Deng, who declined to give her full name, remains unable to leave her village due to mobility restrictions handed down by the Chinese government in efforts to halt the spread of the virus.

“My condition is very serious,” she said. “I am afraid … The doctor said that no medicine can help curb the disease from spreading, and my only options are surgery and chemotherapy.”

Experts have warned that cases like Ms Deng’s indicate healthcare consequences far beyond the coronavirus emergency. The exact number of these casualties is hard to determine as many patients are unable to visit medical facilities.

“We have reasons to believe, however, that the scale of such secondary disasters can be huge,” said Xi Chen, Professor at Yale School of Public Health in the United States.

Some people are being “turned away due to overstretched hospitals and physician burnout”, he said. Others are “unable to seek necessary care due to the massive lockdown that affects millions”. 

Concern about becoming infected with the virus in hospital is another reason patients are reluctant to seek treatment for existing conditions.

Rural residents, like Ms Deng, are further isolated as village roads leading to urban areas with hospitals have been sealed off.

Those ill with cancer are having the hardest time getting medical help because they typically need recurring treatments, said Chen Yijun, a volunteer in Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, who is helping people find assistance for non-virus conditions. 

Ms Yijun and others have compiled information from more than 323 people needing care, including the delivery of medicines and medical facilities for dialysis, as many hospitals remain designated for virus patients.

Not all efforts have been successful. One elderly patient in Wuhan who suffered a stroke and had nose-and-throat cancer was unconscious for four days before dying at home as no hospital had space. 

Another challenge is that people must be “confirmed not to have the virus before they can get treatment”, said Ms Yijun. 

“Some patients are in acute and serious condition, and going through the diagnostic process, including getting CT scans and tests for the virus, only increases their waiting time” to get medical help.

In one instance, doctors refused to perform an operation because they couldn’t be certain whether the patient had contracted the virus.

The volunteer group has since been flooded with requests from across China from people seeking help for their relatives, from babies to the elderly.

Still, even without the coronavirus outbreak, experts say access to healthcare in China needs to improve. 

Professor Chen said that, over the past decade, “more and more of the government’s healthcare spending has been concentrated toward urban areas and big hospitals, not primary care”. He said funding needs to be reallocated to poorer areas, including training up more general practitioners to shore up a first line of defence. 

China has one GP per 7,000 people, compared to the international standard of one for every 1,500 to 2,000 people, as recommended by the World Health Organization. 

After the virus emergency, said Professor Chen, China may finally “realise how important it is [to have] primary care and telemedicine”, especially to reach the often disadvantaged rural population.

Local governments also need to have greater autonomy. The current system remains top-down, with Beijing issuing commands that lower-level officials race to implement. 

In the current virus emergency, provinces “failed to set aside enough resources for other diseases”, said Professor Chen.

Changes can’t come fast enough for Ms Deng, who hasn’t been able to work in her factory job since being diagnosed with cancer in late 2018, and is tired of rising at 4am in the hope of finding a hospital to take her in. 

On Thursday, one facility rang to say they could put her on a bed in the hallway.  

While not ideal, her nephew, Deng Qiang, said: “We cannot afford to wait any more. Her condition is getting worse.”

Mrs Deng added: “I’m not sure if I could be saved. It’s just very painful.”

Additional reporting by Yiyin Zhong

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