For 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused countless delays – in business travel, weddings, vacations, family reunions and more. Health screenings and other non-emergency medical visits are among this group, but a missed doctor visit can potentially be life-threatening. For certain groups the risk of missing a health screening can be exceptionally high, including women of racial and ethnic minority groups, whose health is more often influenced by where they live, what they have available to eat, their socioeconomic status, their level of education or other health factors (often called social determinants.)
According to a June 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breast cancer screenings and cervical cancer screenings went down by more than 80% during the early months of the pandemic. The drop-off in screenings occurred across all geographic regions, both in urban and rural areas.
In Kansas City, the screening numbers were similarly low early in the pandemic, although Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City (Blue KC) data showed that rates were returning to normal levels by late 2021. Encouragingly, as vaccination rates rise and restrictions are lifted for non-emergency medical care, many Kansas Citians are “catching up” on examinations that had been postponed in 2020 – a trend that we hope to see continue and ultimately, exceed pre-pandemic levels.
While screening and other routine health visits are on the uptick, health officials are concerned that more missed screenings may lead to a delay in the diagnosis and treatment of breast and cervical cancer, which is the second leading cause of death among women of all ages and ethnicities.
And unfortunately, the barrier to regular physicians visits and routine screenings is worse for low-income women, who are often uninsured and underserved. The bright side is that many women who fall into this category are given access to timely breast and cervical cancer screening and diagnostic services through the CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, which strives to decrease health inequities based on race, income or other factors.
While this CDC-funded program was put on hold for a time during the first months of the pandemic, it is now back up and running and available to qualifying women across the United States. Regular screenings like these may detect cancers before symptoms appear and when they may be the most treatable, ultimately saving lives.
To motivate women to resume regular screenings, healthcare organizations are going above and beyond to make the process easier by offering same-day scheduling and by calling/texting reminders to patients to reassure women that screenings are safe and effective. Even with COVID-19 cases again increasing in many parts of the country, women can safely get screenings if they take the steps to comply with COVID-19 safety guidelines – such as wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing and being vaccinated.
Testing guidelines vary, depending on age and medical history. Generally, however, Blue KC supports the following CDC preventive care guidelines for women:
- Breast cancer screenings: Every 1 to 2 years, beginning at age 40.
- Cervical cancer screenings: Every 3 to 5 years, as recommended by your doctor.
Most importantly, these screenings are considered routine preventive services and are therefore covered under all Blue KC health insurance plans at low or no cost to members. For more information about screening scheduling and protocols, visit MyBlueKC.com.