New report shows impact of COVID-19 on cancer screening

The number of cancer screening tests performed as part of national population screening programs declined during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, according to a new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The report, Cancer screening and COVID-19 in Australia, brings together data for the period of January to June 2020 on the 3 national cancer screening programs—BreastScreen Australia, the National Cervical Screening Program, and the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.

The number of screening mammograms performed through BreastScreen Australia declined significantly as restrictions were imposed on a range of business and community activities in March 2020 to reduce the impact of COVID-19.

‘BreastScreen Australia services were paused in late March in response to the pandemic. Most services reopened within a month, and all services are now operational, with appropriate measures in place to protect clients and staff,’ said AIHW spokesperson Mr. Richard Juckes.

‘While more than 70,000 mammograms were performed in March 2020, this fell to around 1,100 in April. By comparison, in April 2018, more than 74,000 mammograms were carried out.

‘Overall, there were around 145,000 fewer screening mammograms conducted by BreastScreen Australia in January to June 2020 compared with January to June 2018.’

‘Evidence shows early detection saves lives, so it is important people prioritise cancer screening. Measures are in place to ensure people can catch up on their screening safely during COVID-19.’

The number of cervical screening tests was expected to drop in 2020 due to the National Cervical Screening Program changing from 2-yearly to 5-yearly screening. It is not yet possible to know the impact of the pandemic on test rates.

Data shows a decline in the number of cervical screening tests from the second half of March 2020, which remained low throughout April, during which fewer than 30,000 tests were carried out. The number of tests began to increase in May, and rose again in June.

Cervical screening tests are usually carried out by general practitioners. While GP services continue during the pandemic, some people may have avoided in-person consultations (including cervical screening tests).

‘For the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, there was no clear effect of COVID-19 restrictions on screening activity.’ Mr Juckes said.

‘The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program involves home test kits, sent to eligible participants who return them by mail. While this does not involve participants leaving their homes to complete the test, or to get their results, people do need to mail their completed test kit for laboratory testing.’

‘Ongoing monitoring will be important to better understand how the pandemic has affected Australians’ health now and into the future.’

Mr Juckes noted the aim of population screening programs is to detect disease earlier and improve outcomes for individuals, thereby reducing overall health burden in the community.

Previous reporting from the AIHW showed that people with breast, cervical and bowel cancers detected through national screening programs have improved cancer survival outcomes than those diagnosed but who had never been screened.

A recent report from Cancer Australia also showed a reduction in diagnostic and therapeutic procedures for skin, breast and colorectal cancers from March to May 2020.

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