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Nearly 10 million US cancer screenings missed in 2020

por John R. Fischer, Senior Reporter | May 03, 2021
Endoscopy Women's Health
Nearly 10 million scheduled cancer screenings were missed last year in the U.S. due to the pandemic (Photo courtesy of The University of Kansas Medical Center)
Nearly 10 million scheduled cancer screenings in the U.S. did not take place last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sharpest declines among the 9.4 million missed screenings were seen for breast, prostate and colorectal cancers, according to researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center, and raise the risk of early-stage, curable malignancies progressing to more advanced stages.

“Unfortunately, what we are likely to see in the next few years is the diagnosis of higher-stage cancers due to missed and delayed screenings. In addition, due to the impact of the pandemic on cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment in 2020, we are also likely to see an increase in cancer deaths — another negative consequence of COVID that has not yet received much public attention,” Dr. Ronald Chen, chair of the department of radiation oncology at the university and associate director of Health Equity at the University of Kansas Cancer Center, told HCB News.

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Screening for all three cancers dropped significantly between March and May 2020 compared to the same time in 2019. Breast cancer screenings declined the most at 90% in April 2020, followed by colorectal at 79.3% and prostate at 63.4%. This was due to breast and colorectal requiring procedures versus blood testing for prostate. Breast and prostate, however, saw a “near complete recovery” by July.

Chen and his colleagues looked at data from the HealthCore Integrated Research Database, which includes claims information from 60 million individuals in Medicare Advantage and commercial plans nationwide. They compared 2020 findings to those of 2019 and 2018.

The number of missed cases varied, with the Northeast seeing the largest declines and the West experiencing a slower recovery than the Midwest and South. Helping to boost screening rates was the implementation of telehealth visits, according to Chen.

In addition to calling for a more “concerted public health educational campaign” across the U.S. about the importance of cancer screenings, Chen says more research will need to be conducted in the next few years to determine the complete effect of the missed screenings. “We will need continued research to see if cancer screening activity in 2021 is able to partially or completely close the gap that was seen in 2020. Over the next few years, we also need studies to look at the stages of cancers diagnosed to see the full impact of COVID on cancer diagnosis.”

The findings were published in JAMA Oncology.

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