Article: The Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Services
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, 7i Group set out to uncover how cancer services adjusted to the situation and to understand whether the pandemic has been an unlikely catalyst for positive innovation. A short online survey was conducted with a sample of 60 oncologists across Europe (including UK, Spain, Italy, France & Germany).
Oncologists qualified for the survey if they treated and managed one or more of the following tumour types; breast, colorectal, lung, pancreatic, prostate, stomach and liver, representing the more prevalent cancers in Europe 1.
As the pandemic stabilised, a follow-up piece of research was conducted. This research sought to understand further the current challenges oncologists are facing and to assess if the innovations implemented two years ago have become a permanent feature in cancer pathways.
Reflecting on the 2020 results
Results from the 2020 survey revealed that the majority of oncologists perceived positive innovations had been introduced to tackle COVID-19. New cancer services set-up during the pandemic included; remote consultations (93%), community cancer services (43%), home screening tests (22%), home-based monitoring (37%), home administration of treatment (37%) and rapid diagnostics at the point of care (28%).
In particular, remote consultations and assessments were regarded as a welcome addition, with 44% of oncologists spontaneously citing these as a positive development. A large proportion of specialists indicated that these innovations should become a permanent part of the cancer care pathway (figure 1).
2022 results: oncologists perceive that innovations set up during COVID-19 are likely to become permanent
60% of oncologists completing the 2022 survey stated that there had been at least one positive innovation during COVID-19, similar to the 2020 results.
Many oncologists (38%) spontaneously stated telemedicine/remote consultations as a positive addition, highlighting the benefits of less patient time in the hospital and improved time efficiencies.
During the height of the pandemic, the majority of oncologists predicted that these new services would become a permanent part of the cancer care pathway. This prediction appears to hold true, with 88% indicating their cancer centres will maintain telemedicine/remote consultation services, with many choosing to maintain home treatment administration (45%), home monitoring (35%) and community-based cancer services (27%) (figure 2).
63% of oncologists perceive that telemedicine/remote consultations are extremely beneficial to patients. There is a more mixed perspective around the level of patient benefits of out-of-hospital monitoring and treatment services (figure 3), with 20-23% believing they offer no or little benefits to patients.
Challenges after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic
In 2020, oncologists were concerned about a future influx of previously unseen patients attending clinics after the COVID-19 lockdown. Specialists also worried about the lack of diagnostics and screening leading to patients presenting at a more advanced stage of their disease.
The most recent survey highlights that these issues have become a reality, with patient care further impeded by staff and resource shortages, delays to testing as well as delays to medical or surgical interventions (figure 4).
For many centres, especially in the UK, there is a strain to treat the number of patients entering the healthcare system. Across Europe, 65% stated that their cancer centre had experienced an influx of cancer patients after the height of the pandemic, compared to 80% in the UK. 64% of oncologists in Europe have seen their centre’s capacity returning to pre-pandemic levels, compared to 40% in the UK (figure 5).
Oncologists are open to the pharmaceutical industry supporting the development of cancer services
80% of oncologists are in favour of pharmaceutical idustry support for the development, implementation and/or optimisation of cancer services. Three key requests emerged from the most recent data:
- Patient support and services; including information, education, new products and technologies (including apps) that improve patient experiences as well as improve the efficiency of the health system
- Remote monitoring; supporting the implementation and use of telemedicine/remote consultation services and in some instances home monitoring and administration
- Patient access to new innovations; i.e., affordable new therapeutic innovations and early access programs.
There were also some requests for data and trials to support the optimal usage of new digital and therapeutic innovations.
The pandemic has had a permanent impact on cancer care pathways and the pharmaceutical industry needs to keep abreast of the needs and requirements of these front-line staff and key centres. Two years ago, we reported that industry not only needs to help tackle the negative impact of COVID-19 but also support some of these permanent additions to the cancer care pathways. Remote monitoring and consultations look to be part of the ‘new normal’ and oncologists are open to industry support in the development, testing and implementation of these new methods as well as future innovations e.g., patient apps.
Remaining cognizant of current challenges is also of importance; specialists report strains to healthcare services with delays and lack of staffing, especially in the UK. More patients are suffering from advanced diseases impacting survival rates and health care professionals are dealing with the raft of issues this presents. The practical and emotional impact on cancer care is evident and providing patient support whether it be informational, educational or another to improve the individual’s experience remains important.
This research highlighted some interesting, high-level perceptions within a small sample. Different countries, cancer centres and specialists working in different therapy areas are all likely to have their own, specific requirements and it is these subtleties that industry will need to understand to fine-tune their support offerings.
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