The pandemic hasn't been easy for routine healthcare. Many people still face stay-at-home orders—and those who don't are wary of COVID-19 hot spots such as hospitals and public transportation.
That's causing a drop in cancer screenings, which is worrisome for oncology drugmakers and their sales, but also for public health.
Roche's Genentech is partnering with the American Cancer Society to try to reverse the trend with a "Return to Screening" initiative. It's the latest effort from pharma to emphasize the importance of keeping up health screenings during the pandemic.
AstraZeneca began its own cancer screening campaign in the fall, while Johnson & Johnson launched a more general "My Health Can't Wait" campaign. Merck advertising reminds parents to keep current on check-ups and vaccinations for teens.
While the new effort is unbranded, Genentech has a large oncology portfolio, with blockbusters including Rituxan and follow-ups Gazyva, Avastin and Herceptin as well as Roche’s HER2 breast cancer med, Perjeta. Of the 15 projected bestselling cancer drugs for 2022, Roche is either fully or partially involved with seven of them.
Amplifying the general hesitancy to travel and go into public spaces is the additional pandemic problem of lost jobs and health insurance. Genentech and the American Cancer Society's concern is that delayed screenings will mean more advanced cancers that make treatment more challenging for patients.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw cancer screening rates decrease by about 90% across the nation," Jennifer Greenwald, VP of mission strategy and operations for the American Cancer Society, said in an email. "Throughout 2020, we saw cancer screening rates rebound some, but we’re still seeing at least a 30% decline in the number of cancer screening tests being done compared to pre-pandemic years."
The "Return to Screening" initiative is a broad campaign, but pointedly urges people who skipped a breast, cervical, colorectal or lung cancer screening appointment over the past year to get checked. However, the initiative will not only speak to patients.
The work is “targeting health systems and healthcare providers with this campaign. The communications, processes, and safety precautions that they put into place now will play a pivotal role in returning people to screening," Greenwald said.
So far, the collaboration is mostly focusing on guidance and messaging to lay the groundwork for public health agencies, healthcare providers and screening advocates. The American Cancer Society is working with 75 other cancer centers and organizations to encourage people to talk to their healthcare providers about resuming screenings, treatment and checkups.
Genentech and ACS plan to gather a diverse group of stakeholders later this month to discuss goals for improving screening rates across the board, but also include a strong push in under-resourced communities. Their concern is that pandemic screening disruptions will widen the already large gap in cancer care there.
“Cancer health disparities are multifaceted and require us to examine and address disparities throughout the healthcare ecosystem," a Genentech spokesperson said via email. “These include access to and quality of care, availability of social support for patients, unequal treatment or lack of cultural competence in care.”
In addition to its role as a founding sponsor, Genentech plans to work in an advisory capacity at both national and regional levels.
Later this year, "Return to Screening" will launch a broad public education campaign to raise awareness of the importance of keeping up screenings.