When we first heard of COVID-19 back in early 2020, the immediate mindset for myself and my peers was, how do we protect ourselves? What happens if we get sick? How would I know if I’ve spread this to my infant or grandparents?
I certainly was not thinking, what is the impact to my health if I delay an annual doctor’s appointment for a few weeks? How is my long-term health going to be affected by COVID, even if I don’t catch COVID?
Well, just as hospitals in my region were starting to limit routine appointments and non-emergency procedures, I found out that I had pre-cancerous cells which, worst case scenario, could lead to cervical cancer. As a new mom, hearing this news and finding out that I needed an outpatient procedure to hopefully remove the cells, the concern of COVID went out the window and my only concern was getting this procedure and crossing my fingers that there was no further evidence that these cells had turned cancerous. COVID diverted those plans.
COVID Delays Critical Medical Procedures
After having my procedure scheduled, I unfortunately got the phone call that, due to COVID, the hospital was shutting down “non-emergency” procedures…my procedure got delayed 6 weeks. To me, I was in an emergency situation and had to wait a very long six weeks wondering, ‘are those cells cancerous by now?’ And, if they are, how long have they been cancerous? And the dramatic, but most important, ‘will my daughter grow up with a mom?’
Fortunately, after a long six weeks, I had my procedure and all cancerous cells were removed! While there is no immediate concern of cancer, there are plenty of additional screenings and doctor appointments in my future. When thinking about my situation, I realized that in the grand scheme of things, I was very lucky. It’s unfortunate that I had to deal with this, but at least I’m a patient who attends all of my routine appointments and screenings, and I have doctors who were extremely proactive with my follow ups.
What Does the Data Show Us About COVID’s Impact on Screenings?
Working with healthcare data and already starting to analyze COVID’s impact on patients, I couldn’t help but think about how many others were in my shoes and had proactive measures get delayed, or their screenings delayed, or worse – are patients who don’t typically go for routine care, especially during a pandemic. Cancer didn’t pause for COVID, but how were patients going to find out they had cancer if these screenings and treatments were getting delayed?
Having access to the data, I wanted to look into this – and the results were alarming! Comparing April 2019 to April 2020, we saw an 87% decrease in mammograms, a 70% decrease in biopsies, and an almost 40% decrease in newly diagnosed breast cancer patients. We started to see an increase in screenings and preventive measures in late 2020 and 2021 but numbers still weren’t quite where they were before COVID. From August 2019 to August 2021, we are still at a 36% decrease in mammograms, and a 39% decrease in biopsies, compared to a 54% decrease in newly diagnosed patients for the same timeframe.
Our hospitals and providers need patients to schedule and attend preventative appointments, including cancer and other long-term chronic conditions. If patients are delaying their screenings but have cancer, they are still going to get that cancer diagnosis but at a later and possibly less treatable stage.
This may be the first experience like this in my lifetime, but I feel strongly that this won’t be the last, so how do healthcare providers prepare for future pandemics and pauses in routine healthcare?
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