As health systems and providers begin to recover from the impact of COVID-19, they are confronting a long-running problem exacerbated by the pandemic: poor cancer screening rates, especially in communities of color, that further drive disparities in health outcomes.
Doctors sounded the alarm last year when cancer screenings dropped as patients deferred routine care and appointments and healthcare facilities canceled “nonessential” care. But low cancer screening rates were already a problem before COVID-19, with communities of color in particular least likely to be screened and most likely to be diagnosed at later stages.
With renewed attention to the importance of screenings in detecting cancer early when it’s easier to treat, physicians should reexamine any practices that present barriers for patients, experts say.
“Even before the pandemic, in areas like lung cancer and colon cancer, more than half of the patients eligible to get screenings were missing them,” said Dr. Pat Basu, CEO of Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
He added that providers should start with “examining your policies and procedures and doing everything you can to keep people safe and thinking of how to make it as easy as possible for patients to get screened.”
About 10 million breast, colorectal and prostate cancer screenings were missed due to COVID-19, according to a study published in April in JAMA Oncology.
“How are we going to make up the backlog of screenings? That’s where we’re scratching our heads. It’s tens of millions of people who missed their screening,” said Dr. Lisa Richardson, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. “This is going to take all of us: public health, providers, health systems, clinics, community-based organizations, whoever we can work with to endorse screenings.”
Experts are particularly worried about the impact of missed screenings on women of color, who already experience health inequities.
The total number of cancer screening tests received by low-income and uninsured women through a CDC program declined by 87% for breast cancer and 84% for cervical cancer during April 2020 when compared to a five-year average of the same time period. That includes an 84% drop in breast cancer screenings among Hispanic women, and an 82% drop in cervical cancer screenings for Black women.