J Cancer Surviv. 2022 Jul 27. doi: 10.1007/s11764-022-01231-x. Online ahead of print.
BACKGROUND: All Commission on Cancer-accredited comprehensive cancer centers offer survivorship programs (SPs) to women upon completion of treatment. These SPs can include clinical and non-clinical programming such as physical rehabilitation, emotional and psychosocial support, nutrition, and exercise programming. Concern about the availability and access to these programs during the COVID-19 pandemic has been described in recent literature. We sought to identify the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on participation in these supportive services for breast cancer patients within a single institution.
METHODS: The Ohio State University tertiary care center offers clinical and non-clinical breast cancer support services. Descriptive statistics were utilized to summarize referral and patient participation data from January 2019 through July 2021. Data from calendar year 2019 was used as a normative comparison for pre-COVID-19. In-person and telehealth use was tracked longitudinally.
RESULTS: During the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic (March through May 2020), provider referrals to SPs declined by 10%, while the overall total for the calendar year modestly increased from 1195 in 2019 to 1210 in 2020, representing a 1.3% increase. Psycho-oncology referrals increased from 280 to 318 (13.5%). The most significant change of participation rates in non-clinical SPs during the pandemic was utilization of exercise content, which increased by 220% from 2019 to 2020. The total proportion of breast cancer participants choosing an exercise program increased from 16.8% in 2019 to 42.2% in 2021, making it the most selected program area overall. Previously, nutrition was the most selected program area as it comprised 42.5% of overall utilization in 2019.
CONCLUSION: The pandemic’s potential to place barriers to participation in SPs is a legitimate concern. We found a modest decline in provider referrals to clinical services during the lockdown period, while patient-directed participation increased with more survivors engaging in exercise-based programs. Transitioning to virtual platforms served to maintain access for patients.
IMPLICATIONS FOR CANCER SURVIVORS: As we grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, patients with cancer deserve increased attention due to the expected stressors associated with the diagnosis. Those in the survivorship stage utilize services for psychosocial support, and the observed increase in utilization of SPs suggests an elevated need for connectivity. To meet this need, telehealth platforms have been expanded to allow for continued participation. It remains to be seen whether this will be sustained post-COVID-19 or whether reduced human contact will create new needs for programming.