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The journey to ‘normal’: post-pandemic cancer care

The global pandemic has significantly disrupted health care around the world, including cancer diagnoses and treatments, leaving many patients waiting for care during an already anxious time. Now, as restrictions begin to ease, the work of managing the backlog of cases begins. As we journey to our new ‘normal’, what have we learned from the pandemic to guide our processes and prepare us for the next major event?

Cancer clinicians were already busy before COVID-19 hit and services began to shut down. Now, waiting lists have ballooned. “Catching up after the pandemic will be a long process,” says radiation oncologist and Queen’s Cancer Research Institute researcher Tim Hanna, whose work focuses on health services research in oncology.

Hanna is a clinician-scientist in the Division of Cancer Care and Epidemiology, with a focus on using large data sets in three translations streams of health services research: quality of care, value of care and access to care. Publications include research in mortality due to cancer treatment delay, and prioritizing treatment during a global pandemic.

“In many countries, we’ve seen a 20-30% drop in cancer diagnoses during the pandemic,” he says. “Routine screening has been deferred, and in many cases, treatments have been delayed, particularly for surgery-related care, which requires many shared resources.” A recent study published by Hanna and colleagues showed a significant association between treatment delay and mortality risk for even a four-week delay.

The pandemic has been crushing for the health care system, but Hanna notes that there are also some positive lessons to be learned. “The value of real-time data has never been more clear, and we are having good conversations about how to use that data to be more ready for the unexpected,” he says. “We’ve also learned how to be innovative, such as providing virtual care for routine follow-ups and alternative treatments. In some cases, we’ve discovered that we can even reduce the number of treatments for patients and improve their care.”

Several research teams are continuing to study pandemic data, including the risks of cancer patients contracting COVID-19, and any increased risk of severe illness or death. Researchers are also looking at how to share data and knowledge to prepare for an uncertain future. “We have an opportunity to use this information and our experiences to design protocols and processes that are equitable and responsive,” says Hanna. “We can build a more resilient health care system.”