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Massive negative impact of COVID-19 on cancer screenings quantified in KU Medical Center faculty study published in JAMA Oncology

April 29, 2021

By Kay Hawes

A health care worker reviews the images from a breast cancer screening while patient appears in background on mamogram machine
Routine cancer screenings, such as the mamogram depicted above that can help diagnose breast cancer in its early stages, fell dramatically in 2020. Ronald Chen, M.D., MPH, researcher at KU Medical Center, estimates a 90% decline in breast cancer screenings in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly 10 million cancer screenings in the U.S. failed to happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study published in JAMA Oncology, a publication of the American Medical Association.

Researchers including the first author on the study, University of Kansas Medical Center faculty member Ronald Chen, M.D., MPH, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology and associate director of Health Equity at The University of Kansas Cancer Center, are calling for public attention to this problem to prevent cancer deaths.

9.4 million missed cancer screenings

The study shows that cancer screenings across the U.S. were greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with 9.4 million cancer screenings left undone. The study examined data on three cancers that are most impacted by early screenings: breast, colorectal and prostate. All three types of screenings declined sharply, with a 90 percent decline in breast cancer screenings in April 2020.

Photo of Dr. Chen

Ronald Chen, M.D., MPH

"As a physician, I wasn't surprised to see that screenings had declined, but this study measures by how much," Chen said. "This study makes it clear that this is a large public health issue."

Routine cancer screening is important to detect cancers at an early stage when it is most curable. The consequence of millions of people missing cancer screenings because of the COVID pandemic is a delay in the detection of cancer, which results in cancer progressing to a more advanced stage.

"Unfortunately, by causing cancellations of appointments and cancer screenings, COVID will indirectly cause an increase in cancer deaths - another negative consequence of COVID that has not yet received much public attention," Chen said.

Getting back on track

Chen noted that it's critical for the public and health care providers to understand how important it is to get cancer screenings back on track.

"There needs to be a concerted public health educational campaign across the country to reinforce the importance of cancer screening," he said. "Hospitals across the country also need to devote effort to contact patients to reschedule canceled screening tests, in order to minimize the delay in screening and cancer diagnoses from the missed tests."

Chen's study also showed that telehealth visits, which were widely used for the first time during the pandemic, were associated with better screening rates. "Telehealth has a measurable positive effect on whether patients get their cancer screenings," Chen said. "This study also justifies a continued use of telehealth even after the pandemic."

Last modified: May 13, 2021
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