The number of cancer diagnoses plummeted by 20% at Beth Israel-Lahey Health providers last spring. In any normal year, that would be a cause for celebration.

Of course, 2020 was anything but normal. And 2021 -- the early months, at least -- is looking depressingly familiar. The coronavirus pandemic has kept people in lockdown and out of their usual health care routines. Regular doctors visits are being rescheduled or skipped entirely. The result is a looming health crisis that threatens to last long after COVID-19 recedes from the headlines.

Take, for example, the drop in cancer diagnoses at Beth Israel-Lahey.

“Those cancers did not disappear. They just did not get diagnosed,” Phil Cormier, president of Beverly Hospital and Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester said earlier this week. “And that’s concerning because we also know cancer found earlier has a much better prognosis.

Cormier, speaking to a virtual meeting of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, said other elective procedures, ranging from physicals to colonoscopies, have dropped since March. Some of the early decline can be attributed to moves by the state and hospital providers to marshal resources in the early stages of the pandemic. But now that health care providers are able to see patients regularly again, they are finding that patients just aren’t showing up.

“We’re concerned that (the decrease in) routine and preventative care will lead to an increase in cardiac disease and cancer diagnoses missed,” Cormier said.

It’s not just happening in Massachusetts. An estimated 41% of U.S. adults have delayed or avoided medical care -- including emergency care -- during the pandemic, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

A trip to the doctor’s office can be made safely, Cormier and others have noted, even in the time of COVID-19. At Wednesday’s meeting, he urged employers to not only encourage their employees to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines, but to return to making routine doctor’s appointments.

It’s good advice. Here’s hoping it’s followed.

 

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