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COVID-19 Takes a Toll on Patient Access to Preventive Cancer Screenings

Preventive care access has been severely limited by COVID-19 as patients delay care and miss preventive cancer screenings, listing COVID-19 as a primary concern for missed appointments.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted preventive care access as patients continue to miss preventive cancer screenings and experience delayed care, a survey from the Prevent Cancer Foundation suggested.

The most recent survey found that 50 percent of Americans had an in-person medical appointment that they missed, delayed, or canceled.

After two years of the pandemic, patients still cited the desire to reduce potential exposure to COVID-19 as the primary reason for limiting their access to healthcare.

The survey found that nearly two in five adults over age 55 (39 percent) delayed care during the pandemic. In May of 2021, 34 percent of adults within the same age group delayed their care, representing an increase in missed appointments in less than a year. The non-profit stressed the importance of preventive care screening within this age group because patients become more susceptible to cancer as they age.

Researchers noticed that one in two (50 percent) of patients between 18 and 34 have still not caught up on all missed appointments compared to 36 percent in December 2020 and 45 percent in May 2021.

In addition, 20 percent of female or trans-male people missed their mammogram appointments due to pandemic-related disruption, compared to 17 percent of female patients in May 2021. Patients over age 55 drove the trend of missed mammogram appointments, with 14 percent of adults missing their mammogram appointment in December 2020, 20 percent in May 2021, and 32 percent in January 2022.

The survey also found disparities within preventive care access, with minority patients having a higher likelihood of missing appointments. Specifically, Hispanics were the most likely to miss their appointment.

“The setback seen in our latest wave of survey results is disheartening; however, these results help to inform opportunities for communication that can be used by individuals and organizations dedicated to improving health,” Jody Hoyos, president and COO of the Prevent Cancer Foundation, stated in the press release. “As the omicron wave subsides, we hope everyone will get their appointments ‘back on the books’ and will encourage others to do the same.”

Within the next three months, more than three in five (62 percent) of Americans have a routine medical appointment planned. This is fewer than the number of people who had a planned appointment back in May 2021, with 67 percent of people reporting as much.

The decrease in scheduled routine appointments is predominantly driven by adults ages between 18 and 34 and Hispanics. In May of 2021, 66 percent of adults between 18 and 34 had a routine visit versus 58 percent in January of 2022. Of Hispanic patients, 73 percent had an appointment in May of 2021 compared to 63 percent in January of 2022.

“Early detection saves lives. Routine cancer screening can detect cancer early (even if you have no signs or symptoms) and increases the likelihood your treatment will be successful,” the report stated.  “We need to prioritize getting routine cancer screenings and appointments back on the books.”

These delays in care could have had considerable impacts on patient outcomes; previous research has shown. A separate report from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) found 10 million cancer screenings were missed during the first months of the pandemic.

“Experts fear that missed cancer screenings during the pandemic will potentially lead to an increase in advanced-stage cancer diagnoses in the coming years and may result in an increase in cancer-related mortality,” AACR wrote in the report’s executive summary.

The nation experienced an increase of 11 in patients diagnosed with inoperable or metastatic cancer compared to the same period in 2019. Alongside the Prevent Cancer Foundation survey, the AACR researchers also found that restricted patient care access furthered racial disparities.

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