Fears over COVID-19 infections at screenings

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Fear of contracting COVID-19 seems to be a major reason why patients avoid screening appointments. This finding was confirmed by survey data.

18.02.2021 · Economics, Social Sciences, Spatial Research · ZEW – Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research · News · Research result

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a decline in cancer screenings, in particular during the first wave of the pandemic in spring 2020. This could have a negative impact on overall public health, as late diagnosis can reduce the chances of successful treatment. Fear of contracting COVID-19 seems to be a major reason why patients avoid screening appointments. This finding was confirmed by survey data as well as in a recent analysis of trending Google search terms conducted by economists at ZEW Mannheim.

“In light of the developments that we have observed regarding the number of cancer screenings, we welcome the federal government’s decision to launch a comprehensive programme on 1 March 2021 to provide citizens with easy access to rapid tests. It is important that these tests are widely available, especially in medical practices. There are too many people who have missed out on cancer checks because they are worried about the coronavirus. To remedy this, physicians could carry out routine tests during appointments, which would give patients a greater sense of security and could help close this screening gap,” explains Dr. Simon Reif, head of the Project Group “Health Care Markets and Health Policy” at ZEW.

In a combined analysis of recent international studies and Google Trends data, Simon Reif and ZEW economist Sabrina Schubert show that demand for cancer screening tests is lower when infection rates are high. This relationship was found in several studies conducted in Germany, the USA and Great Britain. By analysing the frequency of Google search terms in Germany, the researchers found that the search frequency of “cancer screening” was lower when the frequency of “risk of infection” was high.

Introducing routine testing in general practices – in addition to the hygiene measures already in place – could help minimise the risk of infection, e.g. in waiting rooms. This would reduce the actual as well as the perceived risk of infection and could significantly increase demand for medical services, especially in the area of cancer prevention. However, this requires that medical practitioners have access to free rapid tests – and that these tests are widely used by patients. “It is necessary to establish a comprehensive testing system so that the capacities of outpatient care are not overloaded. ‘Should rapid tests be used in this or another area?’ is the wrong question to ask. It is crucial to ensure that all citizens have access to the three options – self-tests, testing centres and medical practices – as soon as possible,” emphasises Sabrina Schubert.

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