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COVID-19 pandemic has led to more advanced-stage cancer diagnoses, physician survey finds

Press releases may be edited for formatting or style | March 31, 2021 Rad Oncology

ASTRO recently joined a coalition led by the American Cancer Society and National Comprehensive Cancer Network to encourage the American public to resume cancer screening and treatment, emphasizing that cancer won't wait until the pandemic ends. ASTRO also updated its COVID-19 clinical guidance to include support for COVID-19 vaccination for people receiving radiation therapy, as long as the individual does not have increased risk of a reaction to the vaccine. Patients are encouraged to consult with their radiation oncologist regarding timing and location of the injection.

Additional Survey Findings

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The pandemic is not affecting clinics equally. Radiation oncologists at community-based private practices were more likely to report seeing advanced-stage cancers among their patients, compared to those at university-affiliated clinics. PPE shortages and pandemic-related treatment interruptions were also more common at private practices. Differences emerged regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, as well. Both vaccine access and vaccine hesitation were more problematic barriers for clinics located outside of major metropolitan areas (i.e., population <1 million) and for community-based private practices, compared to university-affiliated clinics.

Telemedicine remains popular. More than 8 in 10 clinics (85%) offer telemedicine options for follow-up surveillance visits, and more than half (54%) do so for new patient consultations. Fewer clinics (15%) use telemedicine for clinician assessments of patients who are undergoing radiation treatments.

Radiation therapy clinics continue to face financial and operational challenges created by the pandemic. Patient volume dropped at 73% of clinics due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and visits were down 21%, on average. Most practices (72%) reduced staff at some point due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Clinics have stayed open, however. One hundred percent of the physicians surveyed said their radiation therapy networks remained open during multiple spikes of the pandemic. Just 7% closed any satellite locations.

Survey Methodology

An online survey was sent by email to 509 radiation oncologists identified in ASTRO’s member database as medical directors of U.S. based radiation oncology practices, and 117 physicians completed the survey online January 15 through February 7, 2021 (23% response rate).

The American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) is the largest radiation oncology society in the world, with more than 10,000 members who are physicians, nurses, biologists, physicists, radiation therapists, dosimetrists and other health care professionals who specialize in treating patients with radiation therapies.

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