By Dr. Chantal Reyna, breast surgical oncologist and Jaci Haack, vice president of client strategy, Welltok.
A recent poll shows that 48% of Americans said they or a family member have delayed or skipped certain medical care because of the pandemic. While health systems often encourage patients to prioritize their breast health with an annual mammogram or routine consultation, this year, many patients are avoiding elective health visits altogether due to fears of contracting COVID-19.
Data show that the pandemic has delayed breast cancer screening in many parts of the country. Some of this resulted from statements from various academic societies, such as the American College of Radiology, during the beginning of the pandemic. However, this is staggering when you consider the importance of early detection and preventative screenings when it comes to diagnosing breast cancer and other life-threatening conditions. As time progresses, availability and recommendations regarding screening modalities evolves.
Since both screening and diagnostic mammograms are typically conducted at a hospital or large outpatient healthcare facilities, some patients have been hesitant to schedule these exams – even when a patient has a lump or nodule that should be addressed – out of fears of visiting a facility where they may be at risk for COVID-19 infection. Many health systems are experiencing a decline in these appointments and physicians are fearful that patients may be putting their health at risk.
How can health systems ensure that their patients are participating in crucial, and sometimes lifesaving, examinations? Here are three steps providers can take to encourage patients to have mammograms and other breast health exams during COVID-19:
Promote new safety precautions
A safe environment is key to protecting patients from potential exposure to COVID-19 and other health risks when coming in for a mammogram. Hospitals should make sure they are adhering to social distancing measures, wearing masks, establishing additional sanitizing stations and spreading out appointments to minimize the number of patients coming in at a certain time.
They should also establish protocol for patients before they enter the building like mask requirements, temperature and symptom checks. Providers need to communicate the new safety measures and precautions that their organizations are taking during COVID-19 to patients in advance of appointments. Providers should also share updates on new safety precautions with patients on a regular basis based on evolving CDC and local guidelines so that these individuals know their safety will be a priority if they come in for an exam.
Recommendations for mammograms or regular breast exams vary based on many factors, including a person’s age, family and personal health history. It is important for providers to fully understand their patient base so that they can tailor messaging and materials for a patient’s unique needs. For example, most patients younger than 40 years old may not even consider breast cancer screening, but according to the American Society of Breast Surgeons risk assessment should be offered to patients at the age of 25 to identify those who may be offered high risk surveillance.
Regardless of the situation, providers should make sure that they are sharing personalized and relevant information with their patients to encourage them to prioritize their breast health and schedule physician-recommended screening and diagnostic examinations. This may include information on signs and symptoms of breast cancer, suggested examinations based on an individual’s risk category and how often they need to be done.
Knowledge is power, and patients are more likely to pay attention to and act on suggestions that are specific to their personal needs. These materials should also include all information about any COVID-19 safeguards that are put in place.
Be there every step of the way
Mammograms can be daunting for those who have never had one or are concerned about a lump they found on their own. These worries in conjunction with the stresses of COVID-19 can cause patients to feel anxious about the process. It is important for providers to support their patients every step of the way. Providers should ensure they have given patients all the information they need to make informed decisions about their health while nurturing feelings of safety and comfort with the procedure.
Providers should assure patients that their care team will be there every step of the way, throughout the mammogram process and beyond, in the case that breast cancer is detected after the exam. By developing a clear plan of action, consistently communicating next steps and building a team that the patient is comfortable with, providers can deliver the best possible care. No patient wants to take this journey alone, especially during a pandemic, so it is important to promote healthcare services that can support these patients along their journey.
While there are some elective health appointments that can be delayed a few months or until COVID-19 subsides, breast health is critical for patients to prioritize. Early detection can make a huge difference when diagnosing and treating breast cancer. The earlier cancer is detected, the more options and better outcomes a patient will have. It’s important for healthcare organizations to follow these steps to encourage their patients to schedule a mammogram or keep an existing appointment on the books.