GP data shows 17% drop in children’s cancer diagnoses during pandemic

12 Nov 2021

A study of cancer in children and young adults in England using anonymised GP records has found that cancer diagnoses during the COVID-19 pandemic dropped by 17% compared to the three preceding years.

The research, presented at the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Festival today (12 November), also shows that children who were diagnosed with cancer during the first wave of the pandemic were more likely to have been admitted to intensive care prior to their diagnosis.

These findings suggest COVID-19 has had a detrimental effect on early diagnosis of cancer in children and young people.

The research was led by Dr Defne Saatci from the University of Oxford, using the QResearch database of over 35 million anonymised GP patient records held on the EMIS clinical computer system. She said:

“Spotting cancer early and starting treatment promptly gives children and young people the best chance of surviving. We already know that the COVID-19 pandemic led to worrying delays in diagnosis and treatment for many adults with cancer, so we wanted to understand how the pandemic affected children’s cancer services.”

Dr Defne Saatci, University of Oxford

Dr Saatci and her colleagues used QResearch to study the numbers of different cancers diagnosed in children and young adults up to the age of 25 in the first wave of the pandemic, between 1 February and 15 August 2020. They compared this with diagnoses during the same time period in the three preceding pre-pandemic years. They also looked at the amount of time between diagnosis and the start of treatment and whether patients were diagnosed after being admitted to intensive care.

During the first wave, the researchers found there had been an approximately 17% drop in the number of patients who were diagnosed with a brain tumour, lymphoma, leukaemia, sarcoma or renal tumour when compared to previous years (380 patients diagnosed in total).

They found that the average time between diagnosis and the start of treatment was slightly shorter during the first COVID-19 wave but that children were more than twice as likely to be admitted to intensive care before their cancer was diagnosed.

Lead researcher Professor Julia Hippisley-Cox, from the University of Oxford, said:

“A possible explanation is that these children waited longer to see a doctor and therefore may have been more unwell at the time of their diagnosis. Together with the lower numbers of cancer diagnoses in the first wave, this study suggests COVID-19 has had a serious impact on early diagnosis in this group of patients. As we recover from the pandemic, it’s vital that we get diagnosis of cancer in children and young people back on track as quickly as possible.”

Professor Julia Hippisley-Cox, University of Oxford

Dr Saatci and her colleagues will now go on to use Qresearch to study the impact of the subsequent waves of COVID-19 on diagnosis of childhood cancer in England.

Dr Shaun O’Hanlon, chief medical officer at EMIS, said:

“This is an important piece of research using real-life GP data to better understand the deficit in care caused by the pandemic – a critical area for the NHS to address as it moves forward. I am grateful to the GP practices who continue to support QResearch, enabling researchers to gain vital insights which offer the possibility for targeted action and recovery.”

Dr Shaun O’Hanlon, chief medical officer at EMIS

Pamela Kearns is a member of the NCRI Children’s Group, Professor of Clinical Paediatric Oncology at the University of Birmingham, UK, and was not involved with the study. She said: “We know that the COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating effect on the health service as a whole and that cancer diagnosis in adults has suffered. This study suggests that the pathway for diagnosis of cancer in children and young people has also been affected and we need to better understand the reasons, which will be multi-factorial. The health service now needs to prepare for the possibility of a post-COVID rise in children and young people who need cancer treatment.

“There are good treatments available for the majority of children and young people with cancer, but early diagnosis is vital. Young people and parents who are worried about any symptoms should speak to a doctor promptly.”

 

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