The Pandemic Continues to Disrupt Cancer Screenings, Routine Care

Sharon Worcester

March 07, 2022

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

The emergence of the highly contagious COVID-19 Omicron variant erased small gains in routine cancer screenings and doctor visits observed in 2021, according a survey published last month.

A May 2021 survey from the nonprofit Prevent Cancer Foundation revealed that more people were attending their medical appointments and cancer screenings, but the most recent January 2022 survey found that those gains had largely been lost by the end of the year.

"The setback seen in our latest wave of survey results is disheartening," Jody Hoyos, president and chief operating officer of the Prevent Cancer Foundation, said in a press release. But "as the omicron wave subsides, we hope everyone will get their appointments 'back on the books.' "

The pandemic has caused extensive disruptions to routine care, and several studies from 2021 found steep declines in cancer screenings. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report in June 2021, for example, showed that breast and cervical cancer screenings decreased by more than 80% in April 2020 compared with the previous 5-year averages for that month.

Another study, published in Cancer in December, revealed that screening rates throughout 2020 remained significantly lower than in previous years. Colonoscopies decreased by 45%, prostate biopsies declined by 29%, cystoscopies for bladder cancer declined by 21%, and chest CT scans for lung cancers declined by 12%.

More recently, the January 2022 survey from Prevent Cancer Foundation found that despite small improvements observed earlier in 2021, many Americans continue to miss cancer screenings as well as regular medical appointments. Survey respondents cited "a desire to minimize potential exposures to COVID-19" as the top reason for missing appointments.

On the cancer screening front, of the people who had a test scheduled in the next 3 months, 45% were not planning to go. In addition, 20% of women and trans-males missed their mammogram appointments, an increase from 17% in May 2021.

Notably, the survey found, 30% of Americans are not even aware of the cancer screenings they need.

The survey also revealed that about half of Americans who had scheduled an in-person medical appointment missed, postponed, or canceled it. These rates varied by age and race.

For instance, almost 40% of adults aged 55 and older who had scheduled an appointment during the pandemic missed it, an increase from 34% in May 2021. Among minority populations, Native American patients (43%) and Hispanic patients (46%) were the most likely to miss appointments.

In addition, half of adults aged 18 to 34 had not caught up on missed appointments, up from 45% in May 2021.

One bit of good news, according to the Prevent Cancer Foundation: "children's health has been made a priority."

About 20% of parents reported that one or more of their children had missed a scheduled vaccination because of the pandemic, down from 26% reported in May.

This finding suggests "parents may be 'catching up' on their children's vaccinations," according to the release.

Sharon Worcester is an award-winning medical journalist at MDedge News, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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