Impact of COVID-19 on breast cancer diagnostic and surgical services at a South African academic hospital
Background: The purpose of the study was to describe the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on diagnostic and surgical breast cancer services at Groote Schuur Hospital (GSH) and affiliated hospitals.
Methods: All patients, newly diagnosed, awaiting surgery, and listed for neoadjuvant chemotherapy (NACT) by the breast surgical service from 23 March–23 June 2020 were included. A historic control was used where appropriate consisting of patients presenting in the same period in 2019. Clinic attendance records and surgical waiting lists were used to identify patients in the three months and data were extracted from hospital records including hospital admission records and surgical operative notes.
Results: The number of patients who presented with a new breast symptom to the diagnostic breast clinic decreased from 1 094 in 2019 to 299 in 2020, representing a 72.6% decrease. Telemedicine use as a function of the total follow-ups increased from 53% (n = 1 350) in 2019 to 75% (n = 735) in 2020. The overall number of new breast cancers diagnosed decreased from 146 in 2019 to 79 in 2020, but the proportion of patients seen with a new breast symptom who were diagnosed with breast cancer increased from 13% (n = 1 094) in 2019 to 26% (n = 299) in 2020. Eighteen per cent (n = 105) fewer breast cancer surgeries were performed in 2020 compared to 2019, with immediate breast reconstructiv procedures representing the largest decrease of 40%.
Conclusion: The impact of COVID-19 on breast cancer services has been both at the diagnostic level and in delays to surgery. A new online referral system improved referral efficacy translating to more cancers being diagnosed as a function of total referrals. The drop in absolute numbers of cancer diagnoses, however, represents an unmet health need. An expansion of our telemedicine service mitigated COVID risk in the outpatient setting. The greatest impact on our treatment decisions was seen in the cohort of patients placed on neo-adjuvant endocrine therapy (NET). We saw a global decrease in breast surgeries performed, with the greatest decrease being in reconstructions.
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