Study Shows Considerable Decline in Cancer Screenings, Diagnoses During First Wave of COVID-19

A study found a sharp decline in in cancer and precancer diagnoses during the first surge of COVID-19 due to a reduction in cancer screening tests performed.  The study appeared in JAMA Oncology.

“It’s widely thought that fewer people were screened for cancer and precancerous lesions during the first surge of the pandemic, because of limitations on non-urgent medical procedures, restrictions on patient volume, and patients’ concerns about the spread of the virus and the need for social distancing,” says Ziad Bakouny, MD, MSc, of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a co-first author of the study via a press release. “For this study, we wanted to document the extent of this decline, and its impact on cancer diagnoses, at a major U.S. health care system.


In this study, researchers assessed cancer screenings and diagnoses over four 3-month periods. The first, during the initial peak of the pandemic in the New England area from March 2 to June 2, 2020. This period was compared with three control periods before and after the main study period, the researchers noted. Subsequently, they compared the decrease in screening tests and in diagnoses during the pandemic period and computed each of the control periods as percentage decrease.

According to the results, there was a sharp decline in cancer screening during the peak period of COVID-19. Overall, researchers observed that a total of 15,453 patients underwent screening exams in the March-June time frame, juxtaposed to 64,269 in the previous three months and 60,344 in the same three months of 2019. Optimistically, the researchers showed that screenings recovered to almost pre-pandemic levels in the three-month post-peak period, to 51,944.

“This investigation is especially timely given that we are currently dealing with a second, and potentially worse wave of the pandemic,” says co-senior author Quoc-Dien Trinh, MD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). “We have learned to leverage a redesigned patient flow, increased use of telehealth, and made other accommodations to allow our patients to continue receiving standard of care cancer screening and diagnosis in the safest possible environment.”