The number of Americans getting key screenings like colonoscopies and mammograms fell by 65 percent amid the pandemic, a new study reveals.
Cancellations of non-essential medical procedures in the spring and Americans' fear of catching COVID-19 at their doctors' offices or hospitals led to an overall decline in visits to health care professional of 23 percent in March and 52 percent in April.
Meanwhile, telemedicine appointments surged exponentially, research from the RAND Corporation reveals.
The adoption of remote medicine has helped to feel some gaps in health care during the pandemic, but these appointments can't replace screenings like colonoscopies and mammograms, which are key to catching cancers early.
That's particularly worrisome as cases of colon and rectal cancer continue to rise at alarming rates, especially among young Americans.
RAND's researchers worry that missing these screenings could mean cancer might be spreading undetected in these patients, posing a potentially life-threatening risk.
And for older and low-income Americans - both groups at high risk for chronic disease and life-threatening illnesses - telemedicine may be no help at all, if they are unable to use technologies required to see a doctor remotely.
Nearly 70% fewer colonoscopies were performed in March and April of 2020 (light blue, far left) than in 2018 or 2019, the new study found. Mammogram rates were 67% lower (light second from left) and rates of nearly every preventive procedure and drug fell
'This adds detailed evidence to the anecdotal reports that Americans quit going to see the doctor when the pandemic shutdown started,' said Dr Christopher Whaley, a RAND Corporation researcher who led the study.
'If important visits are only delayed for a few months, there will likely be no harm. But if patients do not get important screenings, there could be long-term negative health consequences.'
He and his team used insurance claims filed with about 200 U.S. employers in 2018, 2019 and 2020 so far to assess how the care Americans were getting had changed.
In a typical year, about 19 million colonoscopies are performed in the U.S.
The procedure and the infamous preparatory drink are dreaded, but crucial ways to detect polyps - potentially precancerous growths - or cancer in the colon.
Currently, health officials recommend that people should get their first colonoscopy at age 50, and again every decade thereafter, unless a worrisome abnormality is detected, in which case follow up screenings should happen more often.
But the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is proposing that screenings start even earlier, at age 45, due to an alarming increase in diagnoses and deaths from colorectal cancer among young people.
About 18,000 people under 50 are expected to be diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer this year, representing about 12 percent of all U.S. cases in 2020. Rates among people between ages 40 and 54 doubled from the mid-1990s to 2013.