An expected surge in the number of people seeking colonoscopy after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic passes could cause physicians to rethink patient prioritization, could create a strain on endoscopy capacity, and might raise the specter of detecting colorectal cancer in more patients at a later stage of disease.
Furthermore, months of delay in diagnosis of colorectal cancer (CRC) could shorten survival, although more data is needed, according to expert analysis from a gastroenterologist, a medical oncologist, and a colorectal surgeon.
“It has been a big decrease in the number of colonoscopies performed at our hospital in Alicante, Spain,” Rodrigo Jover Martinez, MD, PhD, said during apresented by United European Gastroenterology (UEG). He estimated colonoscopy procedures are down 60%-90%, and the number of CRC surgeries has dropped by 60%. “As you know, the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting Europe hard.”
When patients do return, “the backlog will be huge ... in already exhausted endoscopy units,” predicted Dr. Martinez, a gastroenterologist at Hospital General Universitario in Alicante.
Not knowing which patients with CRC will develop severe COVID-19 infection is another challenge, Bartomeu Massuti, MD, of the medical oncology service at the Hospital General Universitario de Alicante, said during the webinar.
Caution is warranted because “we know cancer patients have an increased risk of infection.” However, he added, most evidence supports an elevated risk for bacterial infections, not viral infections.
Therefore, physicians must continue to balance the risks associated with potential COVID-19 exposure against the risks associated with postponed treatment, Dr. Massuti said. “The goal of oncology care is to try to maintain the preplanned treatment and follow-up. We need mainly to avoid stopping or delaying treatment ... because we will lose efficacy in oncology disease outcomes.”
Imran Aslam, MD, PhD, a colorectal surgeon who moderated and presented during the webinar, agreed: “By delaying the treatment, we might do harm to our patients.”
Dr. Aslam cited data about clinical costs of delaying CRC surgery. A 2019 population-based study in PLOS ONE evaluated different times from diagnosis to treatment. The researchers found a delay of more than 150 days “significantly reduced survival, even during stage I, II, and III disease,” he said. The stage I hazard ratio was 2.66, compared with a reference HR of 1.00 for 90 days or fewer. They also reported elevated risk for people with stage II CRC (HR, 2.80), stage III CRC (HR, 2.70), and stage IV CRC (HR, 1.36).
“This could become more and more abysmal if the pandemic continues,” added Dr. Aslam, consultant colorectal surgeon at University Hospitals of Coventry and Warwickshire, England.
Restarting endoscopy with prioritization strategies and increasing patient capacity are possible solutions. Dr. Martinez suggested a four-quadrant matrix in which physicians place patients into “now,” “next,” “delayed,” or “never” categories based on clinical indicators. The priority 1 “now” patients, for example, will be those with suspected CRC based on physical examination, imaging results, and/or an abnormal fecal immunochemical test result.
He suggested, furthermore, that more widespread CRC screening can resume once “endoscopy units have been alleviated of priority 1, symptomatic patients.”
Dr. Massuti concurred with Dr. Martinez’s call to prioritize patients carefully. He suggested a green, yellow, and red classification system based onfrom the European Society for Medical Oncology. The green group, for example, should receive priority for intervention based on a condition that is immediately clinically unstable or life threatening.
“The main goal is to preserve the continuum of care,” he added.
Another concern – although data are limited – is that treatment might also increase risk of mortality among cancer patients with COVID-19, according to aof nearly 1,000 such patients reported May 2020 in The Lancet. Dr. Massuti, who was not affiliated with the research, noted that 12% of the patients had GI tumors. In addition to increased risk associated with male sex (odds ratio, 1.63), cytotoxic cancer treatment in the prior 4 weeks increased risk (OR, 1.47), as did surgery in the same time frame (OR, 1.52).
“This means patients on treatment have an increased risk of mortality,” Dr. Massuti said.
Implementing telehealth information and communication technologies will continue to grow in importance, Dr. Massuti said. Dr. Aslam noted that video consultation with patients before surgery is already replacing face-to-face interaction, and most follow-up care at his hospital is now done by telephone.
Postoperative care is just as essential in the COVID-19 era, if not more so. “We need to be very vigilant to manage postoperative complications – any symptoms of pyrexia or sepsis, or any sign of COVID,” Dr. Aslam said, including postoperative fever. “If there is any doubt, do a chest CT scan.”
Dr. Aslam predicted the time to perform endoscopy or surgery for each patient will be longer, “so the number of patients done in 1 day will be less than 4 months ago.” In addition, elective surgery patients at his institution undergo COVID-19 testing twice, 3 days apart, prior to intervention.
“This disease will continue in the community for a while, so we have to continue what we’ve done well, like social distancing,” Dr. Aslam said. “We’ve gone through a storm and we are awaiting a tsunami. That tsunami of patients will overwhelm us in the coming months.”
Dr. Martinez, Dr. Massuti, and Dr. Aslam had no relevant disclosures.