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Doctors warn of health risk from skipped medical visits during COVID-19 pandemic

National data shows many cancer screenings dropped by 94% at the beginning of the pandemic.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Doctors around the country who saw medical checkups and prevention screenings drop off at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic are encouraging people to follow through on appointments.

Dr. Amy Khan is an executive medical director for Regence. Experts like her have witnessed similar trends around the country.

"People have been anxious or reluctant to seek routine medical care, let alone those recommended preventive services," Khan said. "Because they're concerned they might get infected if they go see their doctor."

An Epic Health Research Network study revealed screenings for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer dropped by about 94% in March 2020.

Dr. Drew Oliveira, a senior executive medical director at Regence, said many patients are now playing catch up. Breast cancer screenings are now up in recent weeks, about 3-4% above pre-pandemic rates. He said medical providers are much more prepared for safe visits now.

"The medical community has really stepped up," Oliveira said. "They have protocols in place, they have protective equipment, they have ways to get you in and out of the practice in a safe way."

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and in women, and the second most common cause of cancer deaths when men and women are combined, expected to cause about 53,200 deaths in 2020.

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Other data compiled from the American Cancer Society projects 42,690 people will die from breast cancer by the end of the year. It is the second leading cause of cancer-related death for women in the U.S., following lung cancer.

Doctors say the best chance of survival is getting diagnosed early through screening.

"What could have been a cure, say if you found the cancer sooner ends up being a course...that's much more complex and potentially fatal," Khan said.

"You have to keep taking care of yourself, even in a pandemic," agreed Oliveira.

Both Khan and Oliveira also expressed concern about falling immunization rates. Oliveira said children immunization rates dropped by about 26% at the beginning of the pandemic, with students no longer in school, and many parents canceling visits to the doctor.

Doctors urge parents to keep children up to date, to avoid serious illness such as measles.

"We need to catch up with that because we don't want to have another pandemic on top of the [COVID] pandemic," Oliveira said.

Khan added this community-focused effort is on everyone's shoulders.

"This pandemic has given us all a wake-up call," Khan said. "Really to understand that we are intimately connected to each other, and we really need each other more than ever."

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