Routine Cancer Screening Declined During the COVID-19 Pandemic


Public health efforts must address new methods of cancer screening, an expert says.

Screenings for breast cancer, colorectal cancer (CRC), and prostate cancer declined sharply from March to May 2020 vs the same time span in 2019, suggesting that public health efforts, such as increased use of screening modalities that do not require a procedure, are needed to address the deficit caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to findings from a study that were published in JAMA Oncology.1

Within the 3-month period in 2020, the sharpest decline in screening for breast cancer, CRC, and prostate cancer was observed in April 2020 compared with the same month in 2019; screenings declined by 90.8%, 79.3%, and 63.4% in breast cancer, CRC, and prostate cancer, respectively.

Compared with April 2019, the incidence of breast cancer screenings in April 2020 declined from 4287 per 100,000 individuals (95% CI, 4258-4316) to 394 per 100,000 individuals (95% CI, 385-403). The incidence of CRC screenings declined from 2073 per 100,000 individuals (95% CI, 2058-2087) to 430 per 100,000 individuals (95% CI, 423-436). The incidence of prostate cancer screenings declined from 4025 per 100,000 individuals (95% CI, 3993-4057) to 1474 per 100,000 individuals (95% CI, 1454-1493).

Notably, near complete recovery in monthly screening rates were observed by July 2020 for patients with breast cancer and prostate cancer.

"Unfortunately, by causing cancellations of appointments and cancer screenings, COVID will indirectly cause an increase in cancer deaths—another negative consequence of COVID that has not yet received much public attention," said lead study author Ronald C. Chen, MD, MPH, the Joe and Jean Brandmeyer Endowed Chair in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Kansas Medical Center.2

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected all elements of health care, including cancer treatment and screening, across the United States in 2020, Chen and co-authors wrote.1 Stay-at-home orders and safety guidelines issued by the CDC to minimize COVID-19 transmission resulted in a significant decline in non-emergency clinical visits, particularly among older, high-risk patients, explained Chen and co-authors.

The study evaluated 3 distinct cohorts of patients from the HealthCore Integrated Research Database, which comprises single-payer administrative claims data and enrollment information from about 60 million patients in Medicare Advantage and commercial insurance plans across the United States. The cohorts included women with breast cancer, men and women with CRC, and men with prostate cancer.

Cancer screenings were evaluated from 2018 to 2020. Evaluable individuals for breast cancer screening or CRC screening were aged 50 to 79 years, and evaluable individuals for prostate cancer screening were aged 50 to 69 years. Individuals had to have at least 2 years of continuous enrollment before the first day of the index month. Restrictions based on medical claims and personal history codes for cancers of interest further refined the evaluable population.

“Excluding individuals with a history of the cancer of interest allowed us to more accurately assess cancer screening,” wrote Chen and co-authors.

Additional results from the study revealed that despite the rebound in monthly cancer screening rates, a deficit in total cancer screenings from January to July 2020 remained compared with January to July 2019. This translated to a United States–population deficit in breast cancer, CRC, and prostate cancer screenings of approximately 3.9 million women, 3.8 million men and women, and 1.6 million men, respectively. Moreover, the total deficit in cancer screenings was estimated at 9.4 million individuals in 2020 compared with 2019.

By geographic region, the Northeastern United States reported the sharpest decline in cancer screenings in March, April, and May for all 3 cancer types. The Western region had a slower recovery in screening during June and July compared with the Midwest and South regions.

Regarding socioeconomic status, prior to the pandemic, screening rates were higher for all 3 cancer types in the highest 2 socioeconomic index quartiles compared with the lower 2 socioeconomic index quartiles. However, the highest socioeconomic index quartile reported the largest decline in screening for all 3 cancer types from January to July 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. Moreover, the decline narrowed the gap in screening rates across the quartiles in 2020 vs 2019.

Other key findings from the study showed that increasing age was associated with less screening in all 3 cancer types. Individuals in the higher quartiles were screened less for breast cancer and CRC in April 2020 compared with individuals in the lower quartiles.

Notably, individuals who utilized telemedicine services had higher rates of cancer screening across the 3 cancer types evaluated.

“Telehealth has a measurable positive effect on whether patients get their cancer screenings,” Chen said.2 “This study also justifies a continued use of telehealth even after the pandemic.”

Chen and co-authors reported that analyzing only insured individuals, the lack of racial/ethnic diversity in the study population, the use of nonspecific codes for screening, and the inclusion of individuals without a history of cancer were limitations of the study.1

“As a physician, I wasn’t surprised to see that screenings had declined, but this study measures by how much. There needs to be a concerted public health educational campaign across the country to reinforce the importance of cancer screening. Hospitals across the country also need to devote effort to contact patients to reschedule canceled screening tests, in order to minimize the delay in screening and cancer diagnoses from the missed tests,” concluded Chen.2


  1. Chen RC, Haynes K, Du S, et al. Association of cancer screening deficit in the United States with the COVID-19 pandemic. JAMA Oncol. Published online April 29, 2021. Accessed May 13, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2021.0884
  2. Massive negative impact of COVID-19 on cancer screenings quantified in KU Medical Center faculty study published in JAMA Oncology. News release. April 29, 2021. Accessed May 13, 2021.

This article was originally published on OncLive as, "Routine Screening Rates for Breast, Colorectal, and Prostate Cancers Decline During COVID-19 Pandemic."

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