Beyond disruption of cancer services, the COVID-19 pandemic has also led to a deterioration in the level of confidence that citizens and patients have in their health systems. As has been described elsewhere, people “started to fear a COVID-19 diagnosis worse than a cancer diagnosis”29. Meanwhile, data also suggested that patients with cancer could be at elevated risk of COVID-19 severe infection30,31 and mortality32,33.
However, public communication on such matters is a delicate balance between informing citizens of their objective risk in a way that is clear and understandable, but that does not also invoke unintended consequence, such as individuals missing important health appointments or delaying seeking expert medical advice about new symptoms.
In order to protect European citizens and patients from both direct and indirect health risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, health systems need to be fit for purpose. Guidance from the European Commission and WHO Europe to health systems on the normalization of cancer services must include strong elements concerning the parallel management of cancer and COVID-19, such as:
• providing priority access to COVID-19 testing for all cancer patients identified as at risk of having been infected by the virus; and
• ensuring a safe organisation of cancer care, such as through separating out COVID-19 free cancer care centres and diagnostic centres from ‘COVID-19 hospitals’ or alternatively creating separate and ‘fast-track’ pathways for cancer patients within ‘COVID-19 hospitals’.
Additionally, regional, national and pan-European communication campaigns should be conducted, in order to adequately inform citizens of the critical need to:
• immediately visit their healthcare professional in case of suspected cancer symptoms; and to
• maintain diagnostic and treatment schedules as advised by their healthcare
professional team, complying with most recent recommendations for care and follow-up.
This communication effort should be supported at the highest political levels across the EU and its Member States including from Prime Ministers, Health Ministers, and the European Commission leadership.