Tailored Messaging Needed to Get Cancer Screening Back on Track

Kate Johnson

August 17, 2020

In late June, Lisa Richardson, MD, emerged from Atlanta, Georgia's initial COVID-19 lockdown, and "got back out there" for some overdue doctor's appointments, including a mammogram.

Dr Lisa Richardson

The mammogram was a particular priority for her, since she is director of the CDC's Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. But she knows that cancer screening is going to be a much tougher sell for the average person going forward in the pandemic era.

"It really is a challenge trying to get people to feel comfortable coming back in to be screened," she said. Richardson was speaking recently at the virtual symposium on cancer prevention and early detection in the COVID-19 pandemic organized by the American Association for Cancer Research.

Top row, left to right: Karen Knudsen, Otis Brawley, Erica Warner. Bottom row, left to right: Lisa Richardson, Mara Epstein, Amy Leader.

While health service shutdowns and stay-at-home orders forced the country's initial precipitous decline in cancer screening, fear of contracting COVID-19 is a big part of what is preventing patients from returning.

"We've known even pre-pandemic that people were hesitant to do cancer screening and in some ways this has really given them an out to say, 'Well, I'm going to hold off on that colonoscopy,' " said Amy Leader, MD, from Thomas Jefferson University's Kimmel Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the symposium.

Estimating the Pandemic's Impact on Cancer Care

While the impact of the pandemic on cancer can only be estimated at the moment, the prospects are already daunting, said Richardson, speculating that the hard-won 26% drop in cancer mortality over the past two decades "may be put on hold or reversed" by COVID-19.

There could be as many as 10,000 excess deaths in the US from colorectal and breast cancer alone because of COVID-19 delays, predicted Norman E. Sharpless, director of the US National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

But even Sharpless acknowledges that his modeling gives a conservative estimate, "as it does not consider other cancer types, it does not account for the additional nonlethal morbidity from upstaging, and it assumes a moderate disruption in care that completely resolves after 6 months."

With still no end to the pandemic in sight, the true scope of cancer screening and treatment disruptions will take a long time to assess, but several studies presented during the symposium revealed some early indications.

A national survey launched in mid-May, which involved 534 women either diagnosed with breast cancer or undergoing screening or diagnostic evaluation for it, found that delays in screening were reported by 31.7% of those with breast cancer, and 26.7% of those without. Additionally, 21% of those on active treatment for breast cancer reported treatment delays.

"It's going to be really important to implement strategies to help patients return to care…creating a culture and a feeling of safety among patients and communicating through the uncertainty that exists in the pandemic," said study investigator Erica T. Warner, ScD MPH, from Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

Screening for prostate cancer (via prostate-specific antigen testing) also declined, though not as dramatically as that for breast cancer, noted Mara Epstein, ScD, from The Meyers Primary Care Institute, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester. Her study at a large healthcare provider group compared rates of both screening and diagnostic mammographies, and also PSA testing, as well as breast and prostate biopsies in the first five months of 2020 vs the same months in 2019.

While a decrease from 2019 to 2020 was seen in all procedures over the entire study period, the greatest decline was seen in April for screening mammography (down 98%), and tomosynthesis (down 96%), as well as PSA testing (down 83%), she said.

More recent figures are hard to come by, but a recent weekly survey from the Primary Care Collaborative shows 46% of practices are offering preventive and chronic care management visits, but patients are not scheduling them, and 44% report that in-person visit volume is between 30%-50% below normal over the last 4 weeks. 

Will COVID-19 Exacerbate Racial Disparities in Cancer?

Neither of the studies presented at the symposium analyzed cancer care disruptions by race, but there was concern among some panelists that cancer care disparities that existed before the pandemic will be magnified further.

"Over the next several months and into the next year there's going to be some catch-up in screening and treatment, and one of my concerns is minority and underserved populations will not partake in that catch-up the way many middle-class Americans will," said Otis Brawley, MD, from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland.

There is ample evidence that minority populations have been disproportionately hit by COVID-19, job losses, and lost health insurance, said the CDC's Richardson, and all these factors could widen the cancer gap.

"It's not a race thing, it's a 'what do you do thing', and an access to care thing, and what your socioeconomic status is," Richardson said in an interview. "People who didn't have sick leave before the pandemic still don't have sick leave; if they didn't have time to get their mammogram they still don't have time."

But she acknowledges that evidence is still lacking. Could some minority populations actually be less fearful of medical encounters because their work has already prevented them from sheltering in place? "It could go either way," she said. "They might be less wary of venturing out into the clinic, but they also might reason that they've exposed themselves enough already at work and don't want any additional exposure."

In that regard, Richardson suggests population-specific messaging will be an important way of communicating with under-served populations to restart screening.

"We're struggling at CDC with how to develop messages that resonate within different communities, because we're missing the point of actually speaking to people within their culture and within the places that they live," she said. "Just saying the same thing and putting a black face on it is not going to make a difference; you actually have to speak the language of the people you're trying to reach — the same message in different packages."

To that end, even before the pandemic, the CDC supported the development of Make It Your Own, a website that uses "evidence-based strategies" to assist healthcare organizations in customizing health information "by race, ethnicity, age, gender and location", and target messages  to "specific populations, cultural groups and languages".

But Mass General's Warner says she's not sure she would argue for messages to be tailored by race, "at least not without evidence that values and priorities regarding returning to care differ between racial/ethnic groups."

"Tailoring in the absence of data requires assumptions that may or may not be correct and ignores within-group heterogeneity," Warner told Medscape Medical News. "However, I do believe that messaging about return to cancer screening and care should be multifaceted and use diverse imagery. This recognizes that some messages will resonate more or less with individuals based on their own characteristics, of which race may be one."

Warner does believe in the power of tailored messaging though. "Part of the onus for healthcare institutions and providers is to make some decisions about who it is really important to bring back in soonest," she said.

"Those are the ones we want to prioritize, as opposed to those who we want to get back into care but we don't need to get them in right now," Warner emphasized. "As they are balancing all the needs of their family and their community and their other needs, messaging that adds additional stress, worry, anxiety and shame is not what we want to do. So really we need to distinguish between these populations, identify the priorities, hit the hard message to people who really need it now, and encourage others to come back in as they can."

Building Trust

All the panelists agreed that building trust with the public will be key to getting cancer care back on track.  

"I don't think anyone trusts the healthcare community right now, but we already had this baseline distrust of healthcare among many minority communities, and now with COVID-19, the African American community in particular is seeing people go into the hospital and never come back," said Richardson.

For Warner, the onus really falls on healthcare institutions. "We have to be proactive and not leave the burden of deciding when and how to return to care up to patients," she said.

"What we need to focus on as much as possible is to get people to realize it is safe to come see the doctor," said Johns Hopkins oncologist Brawley. "We have to make it safe for them to come see us, and then we have to convince them it is safe to come see us."

Venturing out to her mammography appointment in early June, Richardson said she felt safe. "Everything was just the way it was supposed to be, everyone was masked, everyone was washing their hands," she said.

Yet, by mid-June she had contracted COVID-19. "I don't know where I got it," she said. "No matter how careful you are, understand that if you're in a total red spot, as I am, you can just get it."

Kate Johnson is a freelance journalist based in Montreal. She has also written for The New York Times; the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; MDedge, part of the Medscape Professional Network; Men's Journal; Allergic Living Magazine; and others. She can be reached at kkatejohnson@aol.com.

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