Oncologists alarmed by missed diagnoses, screenings linked to COVID-19

Physicians say they are distressed about the short- and long-term health effects stemming from missed and delayed cancer screenings and diagnoses due to disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wall Street Journal reports. 


Some key findings in the WSJ report illustrate the scale of delayed or missed cancer detection:  

  • With 300 sites of care across the U.S., cancer care network 21st Century Oncology said about 18 percent of newly diagnosed breast cancer patients this year through August had an advanced stage of the disease compared with 12 percent in all of 2019. A C-level leader told the WSJ the trend is "distressing as a physician." 
  • Quest Diagnostics' data shows the mean weekly number of newly detected cases of several types of cancer dropped sharply this spring, including a 52 percent drop for breast cancer in March and early April compared with  detection figures before the pandemic.
  • UnitedHealth Group claims data shows mammograms fell by as much as 95 percent in the second week of April compared with that same week in years prior. 
  • UnitedHealth's count shows nearly 1 million fewer mammograms, colorectal and cervical cancer screenings performed in the first eight months of 2020 compared with the same period last year. 

"There's really almost no way that doesn't turn into increased mortality," Norman E. Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute, told WSJ. Earlier this year, the institute released an estimate that 10,000 additional deaths in the next decade from breast and colon cancer could be attributed to delayed screenings and detection, but Dr. Sharpless said that estimate now appears low.

The WSJ report shares the story of cancer patients who put off oncology appointments this spring due to concerns for their safety amid the pandemic. In a separate report, leaders from cancer centers at Memorial Hermann in Houston, AdventHealth in Orlando, Fla., and several other institutions described the methods and strategies they’ve deployed to encourage patients' continuity of cancer care to Becker’s Hospital Review.

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