How has COVID-19 impacted cancer screening? Adaptation of services and the future outlook in Australia

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions to each of Australia’s national cancer screening programs. The design of each program varies and consequently so do the observed and potential impacts of COVID-19. This article looks at short-term impacts, adaptations and longer-term outlooks for cancer screening. Due to government restrictions, BreastScreen paused during March/April. Screening has now resumed, with 83% throughput observed compared to 2018 by the start of June. Long term reduced throughput would mean an accumulation of women with delayed screens, which highlights the potential for a risk-based priority screening system. Bowel cancer home testing kits continued to be distributed as normal, however a lower return rate was observed, possibly due to postal delays and the ongoing impact of the 2019/20 bushfires . Adaptations to the health system in response to this could create longer-term opportunities for new efficiencies in colonoscopy prioritisation. Data suggests that the national cervical cancer screening program has been disrupted, despite not officially halting. This is likely a result of difficulties recruiting under-screened women due to government restrictions. The transition to 5-yearly HPV screening has increased some aspects of the resilience of the program, but the Australian government must continue this momentum to ensure the program is flexible, resilient and accessible, even in times of crisis. COVID-19 has had, and could continue to have, major impacts on Australia’s cancer screening programs and emerging activities such as the lung cancer screening enquiry. Although Australia’s programs are effective, they must continue to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing crisis.

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