Top doctor Baki Topal: ‘More cancer patients will die as a result of this government measure’


‘The government is asking us to keep a large number of hospital beds free for corona patients. This means we have to postpone some cancer treatments. Our cancer patients react in astonishment to this. Rightly so, because this measure reduces their chance of recovery. More people will now die of cancer ‘, says professor of cancer surgery Baki Topal (UZ Leuven), best known for the TV program ‘Topdokters’.

All general and university hospitals in our country received a letter from the federal government stating that 60 percent of the beds in intensive care must be kept free for Covid patients from Monday. In addition, 15% extra intensive care beds must be created. At the same time, a large number of ‘normal’ beds must be provided for corona patients. The measure already applies for four weeks and will be evaluated and adjusted if necessary within two weeks.

According to Professor Baki Topal (55), this effort in such a short term can only be made by hospitals at the expense of other patients. “More than 50% of the care that hospitals provide is cancer care. And even before the corona period, our bed capacity was often saturated. To meet this demand, we have already started postponing procedures and operations at UZ Leuven this week. In addition, we have started to free up and train staff to care for corona patients. ”

“It is the people from our secretariat who call the patients to inform them of the delay. They are very concerned. Also bewildered: “Cancer is just as dangerous as Covid?”. They fear they will miss their chance for a cure. And they are right. For the vast majority of patients, surgery is their only chance of recovery. Every day that the surgery is postponed, the risk of metastasis increases. Overall, the risk of dying from cancer is much greater than that from corona. Cancer patients are therefore equally entitled to care. As a result of this government measure, more cancer patients will die than in non-corona times. ”

Postponed liver transplant

Professor Topal points out that 31,000 Belgians die of cancer every year, while there are 11,038 corona deaths so far. “That is one third of the total number of cancer deaths. Of course, Covid-19 can be very deadly if the virus finds the right weak host. We saw that during the first wave. But that does not mean that people with cancer should not receive priority treatment and should not receive the necessary care. The government also says this in the letter they sent to the hospitals: cancer care must continue. But that is not possible if we have to keep such a large number of beds available for corona patients at the same time. One contradicts the other. ”

To be clear: it is not the case that all cancer treatments are postponed. Chemotherapies and radiation treatments, which usually only require a day admission, continue as usual. Urgent interventions that are necessary because the patient would otherwise die or the disease would otherwise become seriously worse are also planned. All other care is being postponed this week, even urgent care such as for brain tumor patients who would need surgery or those waiting for a life-saving liver transplant. During the first wave, these operations were not postponed at UZ Leuven, but they were postponed during this second wave.

“The obligation to keep the requested beds and staff available for corona patients, along with our duty to treat cancer patients, creates a huge ethical dilemma. Every doctor wants to give the best care to his patients, with whatever condition, corona or cancer. I know the government did not want to send the message that Covid-19 is more important than cancer, but it must realize that the measure it imposes on hospitals has consequences. It will have serious consequences for cancer patients. ”

“The number of new Covid infections as well as the number of hospital admissions is increasing very quickly. Today there are almost as many hospital admissions as during the first wave. The big difference is that at one point in time, more than 300 people died a day. Now the daily death toll remains below 80, which is a quarter less. Perhaps it is an option not to interpret the number of beds that must be free for corona patients so strictly and to look at the situation from day to day? In other words: use the beds as soon as they are actually needed. ”

“It’s actually simple: the more new corona infections are added, the more people will become ill and possibly have to be admitted to hospital. This also increases the risk that more people will need intensive care or even die. Let us all fight together against the virus so that everyone can receive the best care, both corona and cancer patients. The alternative is to let the spread of Covid run wild and implode our healthcare system. I believe this is not the scenario we aspire to. ”

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