Research has shown that, compared with their urban counterparts, rural cancer patients have higher cancer-related mortality and other negative treatment outcomes.
Among other explanations, the disparity has been attributed to lower education and income levels, medical and behavioral risk factors, differences in health literacy, and lower confidence in the medical system among rural residents (JCO Oncol Pract. 2020 Jul;16(7):422-30).
A new survey has provided some insight into how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted rural and urban cancer patients differently.
The survey showed that urban patients were more likely to report changes to their daily lives, thought themselves more likely to become infected with SARS-CoV-2, and were more likely to take measures to mitigate the risk of infection. However, there were no major differences between urban and rural patients with regard to changes in social interaction.
Bailee Daniels of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, presented these results at the AACR Virtual Meeting: COVID-19 and Cancer (Abstract S04-03).
The COVID-19 and Oncology Patient Experience Consortium
Ms. Daniels explained that the COVID-19 and Oncology Patient Experience (COPES) Consortium was created to investigate various aspects of the patient experience during the pandemic. Three cancer centers – Moffitt Cancer Center, Huntsman Cancer Institute, and the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center – participate in COPES.
At Huntsman, investigators studied social and health behaviors of cancer patients to assess whether there was a difference between those from rural and urban areas. The researchers looked at the impact of the pandemic on psychosocial outcomes, preventive measures patients implemented, and their perceptions of the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection.
The team’s hypothesis was that rural patients might be more vulnerable than urban patients to the effects of social isolation, emotional distress, and health-adverse behaviors, but the investigators noted that there has been no prior research on the topic.
Assessing behaviors, attitudes, and outcomes
Between August and September 2020, the researchers surveyed 1,328 adult cancer patients who had visited Huntsman in the previous 4 years and who were enrolled in Huntsman’s Total Cancer Care or Precision Exercise Prescription studies.
Patients completed questionnaires that encompassed demographic and clinical factors, employment status, health behaviors, and infection preventive measures. Questionnaires were provided in electronic, paper, or phone-based formats. Information regarding age, race, ethnicity, and tumor stage was abstracted from Huntsman’s electronic health record.
Modifications in daily life and social interaction were assessed on a 5-point scale. Changes in exercise habits and alcohol consumption were assessed on a 3-point scale. Infection mitigation measures (the use of face masks and hand sanitizer) and perceptions about the likelihood of SARS-CoV-2 infection were measured.
The rural-urban community area codes system, which classifies U.S. census tracts by measures of population density, urbanization, and daily commuting, was utilized to categorize patients into rural and urban residences.
Characteristics of urban and rural cancer patients
There were 997 urban and 331 rural participants. The mean age was 60.1 years in the urban population and 62.6 years in the rural population (P = .01). There were no urban-rural differences in sex, ethnicity, cancer stage, or body mass index.
More urban than rural participants were employed full- or part-time (45% vs. 37%; P = .045). The rural counties had more patients who were not currently employed, primarily due to retirement (77% vs. 69% urban; P < .001).
“No health insurance coverage” was reported by 2% of urban and 4% of rural participants (P = .009), and 85% of all patients reported “good” to “excellent” overall health. Cancer patients in rural counties were significantly more likely to have ever smoked (37% vs. 25% urban; P = .001). In addition, alcohol consumption in the previous year was higher in rural patients. “Every day to less than once monthly” alcohol usage was reported by 44% of urban and 60% of rural patients (P < .001).
Changes in daily life and health-related behavior during the pandemic
Urban patients were more likely to report changes in their daily lives due to the pandemic. Specifically, 35% of urban patients and 26% of rural patients said the pandemic had changed their daily life “a lot” (P = .001).
However, there were no major differences between urban and rural patients when it came to changes in social interaction in the past month or feeling lonely in the past month (P = .45 and P = .88, respectively). Similarly, there were no significant differences for changes in alcohol consumption between the groups (P = .90).
Changes in exercise habits due to the pandemic were more common among patients in urban counties (51% vs. 39% rural; P < .001), though similar percentages of patients reported exercising less (44% urban vs. 45% rural) or more frequently (24% urban vs. 20% rural).
In terms of infection mitigation measures, urban patients were more likely to use face masks “very often” (83% vs. 66% rural; P < .001), while hand sanitizer was used “very often” among 66% of urban and 57% of rural participants (P = .05).
Urban participants were more likely than were their rural counterparts to think themselves “somewhat” or “very” likely to develop COVID-19 (22% vs. 14%; P = .04).
It might be short-sighted for oncology and public health specialists to be dismissive of differences in infection mitigation behaviors and perceptions of vulnerability to SARS-CoV-2 infection. Those behaviors and perceptions of risk could lead to lower vaccination rates in rural areas. If that occurs, there would be major negative consequences for the long-term health of rural communities and their medically vulnerable residents.
Although the first 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic had disparate effects on cancer patients living in rural and urban counties, the reasons for the disparities are complex and not easily explained by this study.
It is possible that sequential administration of the survey during the pandemic would have uncovered greater variances in attitude and health-related behaviors.
As Ms. Daniels noted, when the survey was performed, Utah had not experienced a high frequency of COVID-19 cases. Furthermore, different levels of restrictions were implemented on a county-by-county basis, potentially influencing patients’ behaviors, psychosocial adjustment, and perceptions of risk.
In addition, there may have been differences in unmeasured endpoints (infection rates, medical care utilization via telemedicine, hospitalization rates, late effects, and mortality) between the urban and rural populations.
As the investigators concluded, further research is needed to better characterize the pandemic’s short- and long-term effects on cancer patients in rural and urban settings and appropriate interventions. Such studies may yield insights into the various facets of the well-documented “rural health gap” in cancer outcomes and interventions that could narrow the gap in spheres beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ms. Daniels reported having no relevant disclosures.
Dr. Lyss was a community-based medical oncologist and clinical researcher for more than 35 years before his recent retirement. His clinical and research interests were focused on breast and lung cancers, as well as expanding clinical trial access to medically underserved populations. He is based in St. Louis. He has no conflicts of interest.