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Health and Medicine

California Could See A 'Massive Wave' Of Cancer Patients If People Don’t Get Screened And Treated

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Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Fear of the coronavirus is making many people stay away from hospitals and doctors' offices. That's leading to concerns that people are skipping crucial screenings and treatments.

In late April, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a plan to return to some standard medical services after weeks of telling people to avoid clinics and hospitals. But almost a month later, many physicians say they’re seeing far fewer patients than normal.

The new allowance for medical visits came after hospitals postponed all non-emergency procedures to save staff and equipment for a potential COVID-19 surge that, in most cases, never came.

Now, some doctors say it’s time to start scheduling surgeries and appointments again. Many hospitals are encouraging patients to reschedule delayed procedures, touting excess capacity and new cleaning routines to keep visitors safe.

But in Sacramento, Dignity Health thoracic surgeon Dr. Costanzo DiPerna says people are still too anxious to come in for necessary cancer screenings and treatments. CapRadio’s Sammy Caiola talked to him about the potential long-term consequences of this trend.

What is your patient load like these days?

The last couple months have been historically low as far as volume, as far as screening, as far as cancer surgeries, basically because patients are concerned and very anxious to be going to a clinic environment, a hospital environment, because of their concerns regarding COVID-19 … Many patients are concerned about coming to visit us, to be screened for cancer, to be surveilled for their previous cancers we’ve taken out.

What are the potential consequences for people who don’t get this care?

What I’m concerned about right now, not just for lung cancer but for all cancers, is are there patients out there that don’t want to come in because they’re afraid of getting COVID-19? And so they avoid mammograms, they avoid cat scans, they avoid colonoscopies … Then in two years we’re hit with this massive wave of patients that are all at a later stage of essentially incurable cancers.

How do you persuade patients to come in?

For cancer patients who need to be screened, who need to be evaluated, who need to be having surgery for cure — because lung cancer is curable if you catch it early and do surgery — I have a frank discussion with those patients by assuring them, and reassuring them, that the experience of seeing us, of going to the hospital, of having surgery ... that experience really should not expose them, and most likely will not expose them, to COVID virus.

What are medical facilities doing to prevent coronavirus from spreading?

In our hospital systems, especially Dignity Health, we have a number of measures that have drastically reduced any chance of the patient being exposed to COVID-19. We have testing, to test patients before and after they get surgery. And once they come into the hospital, we do everything possible to not expose them. They are safe in the hospital.