Excess Cancer Deaths Predicted as Care Disrupted by COVID-19

Pam Harrison

May 01, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The majority of patients who have cancer or are suspected of having cancer are not accessing healthcare services in the United Kingdom or the United States because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first report of its kind estimates.

As a result, there will be an excess of deaths among patients who have cancer and multiple comorbidities in both countries during the current coronavirus emergency, the report warns.

The authors calculate that there will be 6270 excess deaths among cancer patients 1 year from now in England and 33,890 excess deaths among cancer patients in the United States. (In the United States, the estimated excess number of deaths applies only to patients older than 40 years, they note.)

"The recorded underlying cause of these excess deaths may be cancer, COVID-19 or comorbidity (such as myocardial infarction)," Alvina Lai, PhD, University College London, United Kingdom, and colleagues observe.

"Our data have highlighted how cancer patients with multimorbidity are a particularly at-risk group during the current pandemic," they emphasize.

The study was published on ResearchGate as a preprint and has not undergone peer review.

Commenting on the study on the UK Science Media Center, several experts emphasized the lack of peer review, noting that interpretation of these data needs to be further refined on the basis of that input. One expert suggested that there are "substantial uncertainties that this paper does not adequately communicate." But others argued that this topic was important enough to warrant early release of the data.

Chris Bunce, PhD, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, said this study represents "a highly valuable contribution."

"It is universally accepted that early diagnosis and treatment and adherence to treatment regimens saves lives," he pointed out.

"Therefore, these COVID-19-related impacts will cost lives," Bunce said.

"And if this information is to influence cancer care and guide policy during the COVID-19 crisis, then it is important that the findings are disseminated and discussed immediately, warranting their release ahead of peer view," he added.

In a Medscape UK commentary, oncologist Karol Sikora, MD, PhD, argues that "restarting cancer services can't come soon enough."

"Resonably Argued Numerical Estimate"

"It's well known that there have been considerable changes in the provision of health care for many conditions, including cancers, as a result of all the measures to deal with the COVID-19 crisis," said Kevin McConway, PhD, professor emeritus of applied statistics, the Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom.

"It seems inevitable that there will be increased deaths in cancer patients if they are infected with the virus or because of changes in the health services available to them, and quite possibly also from socio-economic effects of the responses to the crisis," he continued.

"This study is the first that I have seen that produces a reasonably-argued numerical estimate of the number of excess deaths of people with cancer arising from these factors in the UK and the USA," he added.

Declines in Urgent Referrals and Chemo Attendance

For the study, the team used DATA-CAN, the UK National Health Data Research Hub for Cancer, to assess weekly returns for urgent cancer referrals for early diagnosis and also chemotherapy attendances for hospitals in Leeds, London, and Northern Ireland going back to 2018.

The data revealed that there have been major declines in chemotherapy attendances. There has been on average a 60% decrease from prepandemic levels in eight hospitals in the three regions that were assessed.

Urgent cancer referrals have dropped by an average of 76% compared to prepandemic levels in the three regions.

On the conservative assumption that the COVID-19 pandemic will only affect patients with newly diagnosed cancer (incident cases), the researchers estimate that the proportion of the population affected by the emergency (PAE) is 40% and that the relative impact of the emergency (RIE) is 1.5.

PAE is a summary measure of exposure to the adverse health consequences of the emergency; RIE is a summary measure of the combined impact on mortality of infection, health service change, physical distancing, and economic downturn, the authors explain.

Comorbidities Common

"Comorbidities were common in people with cancer," the study authors note. For example, more than one quarter of the study population had at least one comorbidity; more than 14% had two.

For incident cancers, the number of excess deaths steadily increased in conjunction with an increase in the number of comorbidities, such that more than 80% of deaths occurred in patients with one or more comorbidities.

"When considering both prevalent and incident cancers together with a COVID-19 PAE of 40%, we estimated 17,991 excess deaths at a RIE of 1.5; 78.1% of these deaths occur in patients with ≥1 comorbidities," the authors report.

"The excess risk of death in people living with cancer during the COVID-19 emergency may be due not only to COVID-19 infection, but also to the unintended health consequences of changes in health service provision, the physical or psychological effects of social distancing, and economic upheaval," they state.

"This is the first study demonstrating profound recent changes in cancer care delivery in multiple centers," the authors observe.

Lai has disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Several coauthors have various relationships with industry, as listed in their article. The commentators have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

The study is available for download from the ResearchGate website.

Follow Medscape Oncology on Twitter for more cancer news: @MedscapeOnc.

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