The OECD Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—to exchange expertise and perspectives across sectors.
As part of an OECD Forum series, the virtual event Closing the Cancer Gap: Towards Better Screening and Treatment took place on 8 December 2022. This event has ended but don't worry, you can still ► watch the replay!
The 2022 edition of Health at a Glance: Europe focuses on the direct and indirect health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most significant shock that most people and health systems in Europe have faced in the last 75 years, and leading to the largest drop in life expectancy observed since World War II.
“As countries now look towards rebuilding and healing, they must think longer term about the mistakes made, the gaps exploited by the virus, and how best to prepare and respond the next time”, warned Devi Sridhar, Professor and Chair of Global Public Health, in her latest book Preventable. This is particularly true in the fight against cancer.
OECD Health at a Glance: Europe finds postponed diagnoses due to the pandemic have resulted in cancer being diagnosed at later stages, making treatment more complex and reducing the chances of survival. Cancer is the most common cause of mortality in the EU after cardiovascular disease.
According to a report published in November 2022 by the Lancet Oncology Commission, approximately 100 million screening tests have not been performed and up to a million cancer diagnoses might have been missed across Europe alone as a result of the pandemic. And one in two patients with cancer did not receive surgery or chemotherapy in a timely manner due to the pandemic. The Lancet Oncology Commission even finds that “COVID-19 has regrettably exposed the poor resilience in current health systems that will prompt a cancer epidemic over the next decade if not addressed urgently”. This comes on top of pre-existing inequalities in cancer diagnosis, care, and outcomes.
The Chair of the Lancet Oncology European Cancer Groundshot Mark Lawler said, “This is an extremely serious situation – the progress that we’ve made in the last two and half decades in improving cancer outcomes will be wiped out unless we act now. In the face of these challenges our societies and healthcare systems must put cancer back on the agenda”.
This backlog in diagnosis and treatment is not only severe, it is also global. As Amadou Diarra, Senior Vice President, Global Policy, Advocacy & Government Affairs at Bristol Myers Squibb emphasises, on the African continent too, three-quarters of oncology providers reported that their facilities experienced a drop in patient volumes. And while delayed cancer care is not unique to any one country, community or cancer type, it is undoubtedly worse for those that were already experiencing health disparities prior to the pandemic.
The dire impact of such health inequities does not only apply between countries, but also between population groups within these countries. There is almost a two-fold difference in cancer mortality across EU countries, as well as significant disparities across different population groups. For example, people with low education status experience cancer mortality rates in Europe that are almost twice as high as people with higher levels of education, after adjusting for age. Research also finds disturbing evidence of ethnic divides in cancer patients’ wait times, a problem which needs addressing urgently.
Undeniably, mistakes were made, and gaps were exploited by the virus. How may we then best go about healing and rebuilding our health systems in the face of the impending wave of cancer patients?
Mark Lawler and colleagues from across Europe from the Lancet Oncology Commission describe challenges for cancer research in Europe, including difficulties in converting research discoveries into therapeutic innovation, poor infrastructure, and a lack of real-world data. At the same time, the Lancet Oncology Commission also highlights that the COVID-19 pandemic might also have a silver-lining for cancer research, having fostered global research collaboration and highlighted the potential of the mRNA technology that was originally developed in the oncology field in the development of the life saving COVID vaccines.
Crucially, the impending cancer epidemic should also drive us to address the risks factors that exacerbate the likelihood of developing malignant tumours. Poor lifestyle choices such as smoking, drinking alcohol and obesity are the biggest contributors to cancer worldwide, with almost half of cancer deaths estimated to be preventable. As researchers and public health specialists have emphasized, the COVID-19 health crisis is not simply a pandemic, but rather a “syndemic”—that is, the outcome of a multitude of other crises that are all happening simultaneously, and reinforce one another. Having highlighted the linkages between our health and the environments we live in, the COVID-19 crisis has presented us with an opportunity to strengthen preventive healthcare and promote healthier lifestyles that must not go to waste.
As we look to the future, it is now high time to turn to the uncounted victims from the pandemic. The OECD Forum Virtual Event "Closing the Cancer Gap: Towards Better Screening and Treatment", which took place on 8 December, brought together the following experts and stakeholders to discuss what steps can be taken to help ensure they all receive the attention and care they deserve.
- Amadou Diarra, Senior Vice President, Global Policy, Advocacy & Government Affairs, Bristol Myers Squibb
- Mark Lawler, Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Professor of Digital Health, and Chair in Translational Cancer Genomics, Queen's University Belfast (QUB), Chair of the Lancet Oncology European Groundshot Commission on Cancer Research
- Silvana Koch-Mehrin, President of the global network of Women Political Leaders (WPL) and former member of the European Parliament
- Mark Pearson, OECD Deputy Director, Employment, Labour and Social Affairs