Cancer Screenings Rebounded Following Dramatic Decline at Onset of Pandemic

Study finds cancer screenings are increasing, however a "catch-up" to pre-COVID-19 baseline levels still requires prioritization of high-risk individuals to get deferred preventative care.

A new study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine showed while preventative cancer screenings for breast and colorectal cancers declined significantly during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, use of these procedures returned to near-baseline levels by the end of July 2020.

According to a release, an analysis of insurance claims data by Castlight Health and collaborators at RAND Corporation of more than 6 million Americans with employer-sponsored health insurance between January and July of 2020 showed mammography rates among women aged 45 to 64 declined by 96% during March and April 2020 compared to January and February. The weekly rate of colorectal cancer screenings among adults aged 45 to 64 and older declined by 95% over the same period. 

The study found that by the end of July 2020, the rate of mammograms (88.2 per 10K population) had come back and was slightly higher than what had been recorded. The rate of colorectal cancer screenings also came back (12.6 per 10K population), although it remained at slightly below pre-pandemic levels (15.1 per 10K population).

"These are the first findings to show that despite real fears about the consequences of the drop-off in cancer screens, health facilities figured out how to pick these back up after initial lockdowns," said Ryan McBain, the study's lead author and a policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "Our study shows that health systems were able to recalibrate resources and protocols in a relatively short interval to deliver these important services."

While the return to near pre-pandemic baseline levels was encouraging, it did not offset the large number of individuals who did not receive preventative screenings during April and May. Researchers would have had to show a significant increase in preventive services to conclude that all or most deferred care had been received.

"Although it is reassuring to see cancer screening rates begin to return to pre-pandemic levels, we must remain vigilant in ensuring that people who deferred preventative services are prioritized," says Dr. Dena Bravata, chief medical officer of Castlight Health and senior affiliate, Stanford Center of Primary Care & Outcomes Research. "This presents a significant opportunity for employers to encourage their employees, especially those at higher risk of disease, to get the preventative care they need."