First national evidence of reductions in cancer medical services and procedures due to COVID-19

Release Date

Amid concerns that people may have delayed seeking medical advice about potential cancer symptoms due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cancer Australia today released a new report which shows, for the first time, a notable national reduction in a range of diagnostic and therapeutic procedures during March to May 2020 for three of the most common cancers.

“Health professionals highlighted a decline in services because of the pandemic, but we did not have national evidence until now. This new report gives us the evidence of a marked decrease in some services and procedures of between 16-57% across Australia for skin, breast and colorectal cancers, during the pandemic,” said Professor Dorothy Keefe, CEO Cancer Australia.

Of particular concern are the reductions in diagnostic investigation for cancers. The number of colorectal investigations performed in April, including colonoscopies and sigmoidoscopies and removal of polyp procedures, was around half of those undertaken in March (between 55% and 57%).  The number of investigations then increased in May and June but were still lower than for March. Other investigations including imaging procedures for detection of breast cancer, (such as 3D-tomosynthesis and MRI) also showed decreases (37% between March and April).

“Thankfully we have seen initial recovery for some services in May, with many procedures showing further recovery in service numbers by June 2020.”

The number of colorectal cancer surgeries and breast cancer-related surgeries, including mastectomies, excisions of breast lesions, and associated lymph node procedures were all notably lower in May than for March and April. Non-surgical and surgical treatment procedures for a range of skin cancers, including basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) and squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) decreased between 16% to 30% from March to April, and for melanoma skin cancers, reductions in surgical procedures were more sustained, with services in both May and June being around 25% less than monthly services in March 2020.

“Our biggest concern is that any potential delays in cancer investigations may lead to more advanced stages of cancer at diagnosis and poorer patient outcomes. Cancer Won’t Wait - so we do urge people not to put off following up on any symptoms and to see their doctor if they find a change to their bodies which is unusual for them,” continued Professor Keefe.

The analysis uses MBS services data from January to June 2020, which includes the first wave of COVID-19 of March to May 2020. These data relate to services provided to the Australian public on an outpatient basis and through the private hospitals system. It does not include any national screening program data or complementary services undertaken within the public sector. Further analysis plus data for July and August are pending.

Cancer Australia has also launched a new interactive body map which shows symptoms of some of the most common cancers that can develop in different parts of the body. Most symptoms are due to something less serious than cancer, but if it is cancer, the earlier it is found, the better.

View the report here.