How has COVID-19 affected Australia’s cancer screening programs?

The COVID-19 pandemic affected many areas of people’s lives, including their access to and use of health services such as cancer screening programs.

The first cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Australia on 25 January 2020. As the disease spread, restrictions were put in place to contain its impact. By the end of March 2020, restrictions had shut down all non-essential businesses and activities, with Australians urged to stay at home (Grattan Institute 2020). Restrictions started to ease from late April, although with state and territory differences, and restrictions remain.

As part of these restrictions, many health care services also suspended or changed the way they delivered their services. Due to this, and the potential for people to change their behaviour whilst under restrictions, there is increased public interest around the effects of COVID-19 on Australia’s 3 national cancer screening programs—BreastScreen Australia, the National Cervical Screening Program, and the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.

  • BreastScreen Australia services (screening mammograms) are delivered in specialised facilities which usually involve close contact between clients and health workers. BreastScreen services were suspended from late March to late April/early May 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions.
  • The National Cervical Screening Program involves a test which is usually carried out by a persons’ general practitioner (GP). While GP services continued during the pandemic, cervical screening tests require in-person consultations. There was no suspension of the National Cervical Screening Program.
  • The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program involves home test kits, sent to eligible participants who return them by mail. People do not need to leave their homes to complete the test, or to get their results, but do need to mail their completed test kit to the pathology laboratory. There was no suspension of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.

This report focusses specifically on screening tests performed through the 3 national cancer screening programs, to assess any impact of COVID-19 on these, comparing data from January to June 2020 to those from January to June 2019 (or in the case of BreastScreen, to those from January to June 2018, reflecting the stable biennial nature of screening patterns in this program).

This builds on recent findings from Cancer Australia that showed a reduction in diagnostic and therapeutic procedures for skin, breast and colorectal cancers between March and May 2020 compared to the same months in 2019 (Cancer Australia 2020).

References

Grattan Institute 2020. Australia’s COVID-19 response: the story so far. Accessed 3 September 2020.