New evidence shows COVID-19 has delayed cancer diagnoses

Data from Victoria shows cancer notifications are still below pre-pandemic levels

Disruptions to cancer screening by the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a decline in diagnoses, according to new data from a Victorian study, published in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA). (1)

Healthcare providers fear this may have two consequences - one will be a backlog of cases from delayed diagnoses and the other is that the cancer may be more advanced and therefore potentially more difficult to treat.

The study by researchers from the Victorian Cancer Registry, Monash University and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre  draws on Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) data which indicates there were 37% fewer screenings for breast cancer and 55% fewer for colorectal cancer in April 2020 compared to March 2020, when the first lockdown commenced across Australia.

The authors looked at the data from Victoria more closely, as this is the state that has suffered the most disruption to life and normal healthcare. They found that from 1 April until 15 October 2020 there were 5446 fewer notifications of cancer diagnoses than would be predicted to occur in normal circumstances. The cancers most affected were prostate, head and neck, melanoma and breast cancer. The greatest reduction was from 1 April to 4 May.
   
During the entire six and a half months in which there were restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, about 2530 cancer diagnoses were either delayed or missed.

The authors discuss their findings in more detail in a podcast also provided by the Medical Journal of Australia (2). While they anticipate a surge of new diagnoses of more advanced cancers, they are concerned that even in January 2021, when life was back to near normal in Victoria, the expected surge of cases had not yet materialised.

The authors also speculate that while telehealth appointments made it easier for patients to see their doctor, this form of appointment is not of the same quality as a face-to-face consultations and also that minor symptoms may not be reported by patients in such situations.

The authors hope that the ongoing media campaign to stress the importance of seeing a doctor when symptoms develop and that this is now a safe process, will address this problem and result in cancer being diagnosed in a timely manner.
 
  1. https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2021/214/6/decline-cancer-pathology-notifications-during-2020-covid-19-related-restrictions
  2. https://www.mja.com.au/podcast/214/4/mja-podcasts-2021-episode-6-impact-covid-19-cancer-pathology-notifications-dr-luc-te
 
 


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