According to a study published in JAMA Oncology by researchers at Dana-Farber/Bringham and Women’s Cancer Center, researchers documented a sharp drop in cancer and pre-cancer diagnoses at the Northeast’s most extensive health care system. Due to the first peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, a decrease in the number of screenings occurred.

Documented as one of the first studies to examine the impact of COVID-19 on cancer diagnoses, the findings confirm concerns that restrictions might have delayed the detection of many cancers. In the months following the initial peak, cancer screenings and diagnoses rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s widely thought that fewer people were screened for cancer and pre-cancerous lesions during the first surge of the pandemic, because limitations on non-urgent medical procedures, restrictions on patient volume, patients’ concerns about the spread of the virus, and the need for social distancing,” said Ziad Bakouny, M.D. MSc, a co-author of the study. “For this study, we wanted to document the extent of this deadline, and its impact on cancer diagnoses, at a major U.S. healthcare system.”

Patient data from the Massachusetts General Bingham system of hospitals were used for the study. The number of mammograms, colonoscopies, Papinicolaou (“Pap”) tests for cervical cancer, prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests, and low-dose Computed Tomography (CT) tests was all tracked for four three-month periods. March 2 to June 2, 2020, the previous three months, the subsequent three months, and the same three months in 2019 were all used in the study.

During the peak period, the statistics show a sharp decline in cancer screenings. In 2019, between March and June, 60,344 patients underwent screening exams. In 2020, a total of 15,453 patients had screening exams, compared to 64,269 in the previous three months. In the post-peak three-month period, screening levels mostly recovered to 51,944.

Unexpectedly, cancer diagnoses also declined during the COVID-19 peak. The researchers estimated that roughly 1,438 cancers and pre-cancerous growths were left undiagnosed during that period. Cancers are easier to treat when detected at early stages, so those that were overlooked could potentially be worse or life-threatening.

Bakouny remarked, “It’s reassuring, though, to see that in the three-month post-peak period, the number of screening tests and diagnoses resulting from those tests returned to near-normal level.”

Co-senior author Quoc-Dien Trinh, M.D., of Bingham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), said, “This investigation is especially timely given that we are currently dealing with a second, and potentially worse wave of the pandemic. We have learned to leverage a redesigned patient flow, increased use of telehealth, and made other accommodations to allow our patients to continue in receiving cancer screenings in the safest possible environment.”  

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