An international survey provides new insights into how COVID-19 has affected, and may continue to affect, the field of oncology.
The survey showed that “COVID-19 has had a major impact on the organization of patient care, on the well-being of caregivers, on continued medical education, and on clinical trial activities in oncology,” stated Guy Jerusalem, MD, PhD, of Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Liège (Belgium).
Dr. Jerusalem presented these findings at the European Society for Medical Oncology Virtual Congress 2020.
The survey was distributed by 20 oncologists from 10 of the countries most affected by COVID-19. Responses were obtained from 109 oncologists representing centers in 18 countries. The responses were recorded between June 17 and July 14, 2020.
The survey consisted of 95 items intended to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on the organization of oncologic care. Questions encompassed the capacity and service offered at each center, the magnitude of COVID-19–based care interruptions and the reasons for them, the ensuing challenges faced, interventions implemented, and the estimated harms to patients during the pandemic.
The 109 oncologists surveyed had a median of 20 years of oncology experience. A majority of respondents were men (61.5%), and the median age was 48.5 years.
The respondents had worked predominantly (62.4%) at academic hospitals, with 29.6% at community hospitals. Most respondents worked at general hospitals with an oncology unit (66.1%) rather than a specialized separate cancer center (32.1%).
The most common specialty was breast cancer (60.6%), followed by gastrointestinal cancer (10.1%), urogenital cancer (9.2%), and lung cancer (8.3%).
Impact on treatment
The treatment modalities affected by the pandemic – through cancellations or delays in more than 10% of patients – included surgery (in 34% of centers), chemotherapy (22%), radiotherapy (13.7%), checkpoint inhibitor therapy (9.1%), monoclonal antibodies (9%), and oral targeted therapy (3.7%).
Among oncologists treating breast cancer, cancellations/delays in more than 10% of patients were reported for everolimus (18%), CDK4/6 inhibitors (8.9%), and endocrine therapy (2.2%).
Overall, 34.8% of respondents reported increased use of granulocyte colony–stimulating factor, and 6.4% reported increased use of erythropoietin.
On the other hand, 11.1% of respondents reported a decrease in the use of double immunotherapy, and 21.9% reported decreased use of corticosteroids.
Not only can the immunosuppressive effects of steroid use increase infection risks, Dr. Jerusalem noted, fever suppression can lead to a delayed diagnosis of COVID-19.
“To circumvent potential higher infection risks or greater disease severity, we use lower doses of steroids, but this is not based on studies,” he said.
“Previous exposure to steroids or being on steroids at the time of COVID-19 infection is a detrimental factor for complications and mortality,” commented ESMO President Solange Peters, MD, PhD, of Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Dr. Peters noted that the observation was based on lung cancer registry findings. Furthermore, because data from smaller outbreaks of other coronavirus infections suggested worse prognosis and increased mortality, steroid use was already feared in the very early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lastly, earlier cessation of palliative treatment was observed in 32.1% of centers, and 64.2% of respondents agreed that undertreatment because of COVID-19 is a major concern.
Dr. Jerusalem noted that the survey data do not explain the early cessation of palliative treatment. “I suspect that many patients died at home rather than alone in institutions because it was the only way they could die with their families around them.”
Telehealth, meetings, and trials
The survey also revealed rationales for the use of teleconsultation, including follow-up (94.5%), oral therapy (92.7%), immunotherapy (57.8%), and chemotherapy (55%).
Most respondents reported more frequent use of virtual meetings for continuing medical education (94%), oncologic team meetings (92%), and tumor boards (82%).
While about 82% of respondents said they were likely to continue the use of telemedicine, 45% said virtual conferences are not an acceptable alternative to live international conferences such as ESMO, Dr. Jerusalem said.
Finally, nearly three-quarters of respondents (72.5%) said all clinical trial activities are or will soon be activated, or never stopped, at their centers. On the other hand, 27.5% of respondents reported that their centers had major protocol violations or deviations, and 37% of respondents said they expect significant reductions in clinical trial activities this year.
Dr. Jerusalem concluded that COVID-19 is having a major, long-term impact on the organization of patient care, caregivers, continued medical education, and clinical trial activities in oncology.
He cautioned that “the risk of a delayed diagnosis of new cancers and economic consequences of COVID-19 on access to health care and cancer treatments have to be carefully evaluated.”
This research was funded by Fondation Léon Fredericq. Dr. Jerusalem disclosed relationships with Novartis, Roche, Lilly, Pfizer, Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb, AstraZeneca, Daiichi Sankyo, AbbVie, MedImmune, and Merck. Dr. Peters disclosed relationships with AbbVie, Amgen, AstraZeneca, and many other companies.
SOURCE: Jerusalem G et al. ESMO 2020, Abstract LBA76.