Researchers Find Cancer Screenings Rebounded Quickly After Drop at Beginning of COVID-19 Pandemic


In April 2020, colonoscopy screenings declined from 15.1 per 10,000 beneficiaries to 0.9, a 95% difference.

Although screenings for breast cancer and colon cancer dropped dramatically at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, new research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine shows that the procedures returned to near normal levels by the end of July 2020.

By analyzing insurance claims from more than 6 million Americans with private health coverage, provided by Castlight Health, researchers found that mammography rates among women aged 45 to 64 years declined by 96% during March and April 2020, compared to January and February 2020. Similarly, the weekly rate of colorectal cancer screenings among adults aged 45 to 64 years and older dropped by 95% during the same period.

However, the investigators found that by the end of July 2020, the rate of mammograms among women had rebounded and was slightly higher than it had been before the pandemic. The rate of colonoscopies also rebounded, although it remained below pre-pandemic levels and did not rebound enough to offset initial reductions in care.

“These are the first findings to show that, despite real fears about the consequences of drop-off in cancer screens, health facilities figured out how to pick this back up after the initial pandemic restrictions,” said lead author Ryan McBain, PHD, MPH, in the press release. “Our study shows that health systems were able to recalibrate resources and protocols in a relatively short interval to deliver these important services.”

Routine cancer screening procedures rely primarily on office-based medical technologies, according to the study. The investigators noted that use of in-office procedures plummeted immediately after the pandemic began in March 2020, creating widespread concerns that the trend could delay diagnosis of cancers and have adverse health consequences as a result.

Prior to the national emergency declaration on March 13, 2020, the median weekly rate of screening mammography was 87.8% women per 10,000 beneficiaries. This rate declined to 6.9 in April—a 96% drop. By the end of July, the rate of mammograms increased to 88.2% screening per 10,000 beneficiaries.

In April 2020, colonoscopy screenings declined from 15.1 per 10,000 beneficiaries to 0.9, a 95% difference. The rate of colonoscopies rebounded to 12.6 per 10,000 beneficiaries by the end of July.

“While it is reassuring to see cancer screening rates begin to return to pre-pandemic levels, we have to ensure that people who deferred preventive services are prioritized to get their screening in a timely manner, especially if they are at higher risk of disease,” explained Castlight Health Chief Medical Officer Dena M. Bravata, MD, MS, in the press release.


Use of common cancer screenings rebounded quickly after dropping at start of the pandemic [news release]. RAND Corporation; March 22, 2021. Accessed March 30, 2021.

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