How the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Prostate Cancer Screening and Access to Care
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, there was not much information available. Even experts were unsure of how COVID-19 was spread, who was at the highest risk, and how to best treat the virus. While there is still much more to learn, we have made great progress. We understand more about what the virus is and who it impacts the most. We have several vaccines that are very effective.
COVID-19 and prostate cancer care
At the beginning of the pandemic, stay-at-home orders were in effect across the United States. Many hospitals and healthcare offices were operating with limitations. Often, non-emergency appointments were rescheduled or canceled in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
People were advised to not go out unless absolutely necessary. This was especially important for older adults and those with other medical conditions. These groups were at a higher risk for severe COVID-19. However, many people who fall into either or both of these categories may also be at risk for prostate cancer and could benefit from screening. Others in these groups may already have prostate cancer and need regular access to healthcare.
New research shows that COVID-19-related restrictions may have lowered prostate cancer screening rates and diagnoses. Plus, access to healthcare for those already diagnosed with prostate cancer may have been reduced. Now that we are moving into a different phase of the pandemic, researchers are looking at data from 2020 to see how COVID-19 impacted care.1,2
Declines in screening
One study found that prostate cancer screening rates for men between 50 and 69 years old sharply decreased from March to May of 2020 compared to the same months in 2019. In April 2020 alone, there was a 63 percent decrease in prostate cancer screening rates compared to the year before.1
The rates of decline also varied by U.S. location. A greater decline was seen in the Northeast from March to May of 2020. This makes sense given the peak of COVID-19 in this area.1
The rates of screening did recover to normal levels by the summer of 2020. However, the big initial dip led to an estimated 1.6 million fewer people screened for prostate cancer. This was specifically for the first half of 2020 compared to the same months the year prior. Interestingly, those who used telehealth had higher rates of cancer screenings than those who did not use telehealth.1
Access to care
Another study looked at data for men already diagnosed with prostate cancer to see if COVID-19 impacted how often they went to their doctor. Records for more than 270,000 men with prostate cancer were reviewed to determine the average number of urologist visits per week. The researchers included telehealth visits in their counts.2
Overall, from mid-March through November 2020, there was a decline in the number of weekly visits to the urologist compared to the year before. The decrease in visits was greatest for those with lower risk prostate cancer. However, even those with high-risk cancer had decreases in the number of regular visits to the urologist.2
What do all of these results mean?
While there is much more research to be done on COVID-19’s impact on health, these results are an interesting start. It is clear that especially early on in the pandemic, prostate cancer screening rates declined. Though they have since recovered, there was still an overall decrease in the number of people screened during 2020. Plus, those who were already diagnosed with prostate cancer seemed to be visiting their urologist less often during the pandemic.
All of these changes may have impacted the overall prostate cancer landscape and led to delays in diagnosis or inadequate care during the pandemic. However, more studies will be needed to understand the true effects, if any.
Screening and care today
The same screening guidelines apply to prostate cancer now as they did before the pandemic. Many healthcare locations are operating the same as they were before COVID-19 and have increased cleaning and distancing protocols. They also often have vaccinated staff and doctors. This makes accessing healthcare safe and recommended.3
The U.S. Preventive Task Force (USPTF) and the American Cancer Society (ACS) have issued guidelines for prostate cancer screening. Overall, both sources recommend that the decision to screen for prostate cancer should be made with your doctor. Talk to your doctor about your prostate cancer risk, and together you can decide what is right for you. If you have symptoms that are concerning, contact your doctor right away.
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