Will COVID-19 exacerbate racial disparities in cancer?
Neither of the studies presented at the symposium analyzed cancer care disruptions by race, but there was concern among some panelists that cancer care disparities that existed before the pandemic will be magnified further.
“Over the next several months and into the next year there’s going to be some catch-up in screening and treatment, and one of my concerns is minority and underserved populations will not partake in that catch-up the way many middle-class Americans will,” said Otis Brawley, MD, from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland.
There is ample evidence that minority populations have been disproportionately hit by COVID-19, job losses, and lost health insurance, said the CDC’s Richardson, and all these factors could widen the cancer gap.
“It’s not a race thing, it’s a ‘what do you do thing,’ and an access to care thing, and what your socioeconomic status is,” Richardson said in an interview. “People who didn’t have sick leave before the pandemic still don’t have sick leave; if they didn’t have time to get their mammogram they still don’t have time.”
But she acknowledges that evidence is still lacking. Could some minority populations actually be less fearful of medical encounters because their work has already prevented them from sheltering in place? “It could go either way,” she said. “They might be less wary of venturing out into the clinic, but they also might reason that they’ve exposed themselves enough already at work and don’t want any additional exposure.”
In that regard, Richardson suggests population-specific messaging will be an important way of communicating with under-served populations to restart screening.
“We’re struggling at CDC with how to develop messages that resonate within different communities, because we’re missing the point of actually speaking to people within their culture and within the places that they live,” she said. “Just saying the same thing and putting a black face on it is not going to make a difference; you actually have to speak the language of the people you’re trying to reach — the same message in different packages.”
To that end, even before the pandemic, the CDC supported the development of, a website that uses “evidence-based strategies” to assist healthcare organizations in customizing health information “by race, ethnicity, age, gender and location”, and target messages to “specific populations, cultural groups and languages”.
But Mass General’s Warner says she’s not sure she would argue for messages to be tailored by race, “at least not without evidence that values and priorities regarding returning to care differ between racial/ethnic groups.”
“Tailoring in the absence of data requires assumptions that may or may not be correct and ignores within-group heterogeneity,” Warner told Medscape Medical News. “However, I do believe that messaging about return to cancer screening and care should be multifaceted and use diverse imagery. This recognizes that some messages will resonate more or less with individuals based on their own characteristics, of which race may be one.”
Warner does believe in the power of tailored messaging though. “Part of the onus for healthcare institutions and providers is to make some decisions about who it is really important to bring back in soonest,” she said.
“Those are the ones we want to prioritize, as opposed to those who we want to get back into care but we don’t need to get them in right now,” Warner emphasized. “As they are balancing all the needs of their family and their community and their other needs, messaging that adds additional stress, worry, anxiety and shame is not what we want to do. So really we need to distinguish between these populations, identify the priorities, hit the hard message to people who really need it now, and encourage others to come back in as they can.”