Pandemic-Related Drops in Breast Cancer Screening Hit Underserved

Will Pass

August 31, 2021

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Breast cancer screening rates at community health centers (CHCs) in the United States declined during the pandemic, particularly among Black and uninsured individuals, based on a retrospective look at 32 sites.

Still, drops in screening were less dramatic than national declines previously reported, possibly because of the American Cancer Society–directed CHANGE program, which was simultaneously underway at the CHCs involved, reported lead author Stacey A. Fedewa, PhD, senior principal scientist at the ACS in Atlanta, and colleagues.

"This is one of the first studies to examine breast cancer screening rates during the pandemic specifically among clinics providing care to communities of color and lower income populations, a group with lower utilization of and greater barriers to [breast cancer] screening," the investigators wrote in Cancer. "This is important because these populations have longstanding barriers to accessing care, lower breast screening rates, higher breast cancer mortality rates, and are especially vulnerable to health care disruptions."

According to a previous analysis of electronic health records by Mast and Munoz del Rio, breast cancer screening rates in the United States dropped 94% in March/April 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency. Although a recent follow-up report showed a rebound in breast cancer screening, the estimated rate remains 13% below average.

The present study evaluated data from 32 out of 1,385 CHCs in the United States. All centers were involved in the ACS-run CHANGE grant program, which funded the clinics for 2 years, during which time they implemented at least three evidence-based provider and client interventions, such as patient navigation or electronic medical record enhancements. The clinics reported breast cancer screening rates on a routine basis throughout the 2-year period, beginning August 2018.

Breast cancer screening rate was defined as the percentage of women aged 50-74 years who had a screening mammogram within the past 27 months, out of a total pool of women who had a medical visit within the past year. For 2018, 2019, and 2020, respectively, 142,207, 142,003, and 150,630 women had a medical visit. Screening rates were compared across years in either June or July. Findings were further characterized by demographic characteristics, urban/rural status, and clinic region.

From 2018 to 2019 breast cancer screening rates rose 18%, from 45.8% to 53.9%. This increase was followed by an 8% decline during the 2019-2020 period, from 53.9% to 49.6%.

The investigators estimated the number of missed mammograms and breast cancer diagnoses for two comparative, hypothetical scenarios: first, if the rising trend from 2018 to 2019 had continued through 2020, and second, if the rate had plateaued at 53.9%.

The rising trend model suggested that 47,517 fewer mammograms than normal were conducted during 2019-2020, resulting in 242 missed breast cancer diagnoses, of which 166 were invasive and 76 were ductal carcinoma in situ. The plateau model suggested that 6,477 fewer mammograms were conducted, leading to 33 missed diagnoses.

Compared with the 8% decline in screening overall, the rate among Black patients dropped 12%, while rates at clinics with a lower proportion of uninsured patients dropped an average of 15%. In contrast, clinics in the South did not have a significant reduction in screening, "possibly reflecting lower baseline rates or impact of stay-at-home orders," the investigators wrote.

Fedewa and colleagues also noted that their findings were less dramatic than those reported by Mast and Munoz del Rio. They suggested that the CHANGE program may have softened the blow dealt by the pandemic.

"The CHANGE program–funded interventions — that were established before and continued through 2020 — may have mitigated the pandemic's effects on breast cancer screening services among the 32 CHCs that were studied," they wrote. "Further investigation of breast cancer screening rates among additional CHCs will further inform where targeted interventions (eg, client reminders, education on return to screening) are most needed."

According to Madeline Sutton, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta, "Progress seen with the CHANGE program should be duplicated in other clinical venues based on improvements seen in numbers of mammograms and breast cancers detected."

Still, Sutton noted that the racial/ethnic disparities remain cause for concern.

"This study has implications for persons served at CHCs, especially if breast cancer racial/ethnic disparities are unintentionally widened during this pandemic," Sutton said in a written comment. "Policy-level changes that decrease BCSR [breast cancer screen rate] gaps for women are warranted."

Ana Velázquez Mañana, MD, a medical oncology fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, suggested that the effects of the pandemic may have been even more pronounced among medically underserved patients in whom interventions to increase screening were not being conducted, as they were through the CHANGE program.

"One must wonder to what degree these interventions reduced the decline in screening mammography rates observed during the pandemic and to what degree could disparities in screening be magnified in community health centers with less resources," Velázquez said in a written comment. "Therefore, understanding barriers to breast cancer screening among our specific health care systems is key to guide resource allocation and the development of evidence-based multilevel interventions that can address these barriers, and ultimately increase screening rates."

Velázquez also noted that the study by Fedewa and colleagues may have missed drops in screening among vulnerable populations that occurred later in the pandemic and in geographic hotspots. In a recent JAMA Network Open study, Velázquez reported a 41% drop in breast cancer screening at a safety-net hospital in San Francisco during the first stay-at-home order, which lasted from February 1, 2020, to May 31, 2020.

The Breast Health Equity CHANGE grant was funded by the National Football League in partnership with the American Cancer Society. The investigators reported employment by the American Cancer Society. Wehling and Wysocki disclosed grants from Pfizer unrelated to this research. Sutton and Velázquez disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Cancer. Published online August 26, 2021. Full text

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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