Prevention over fear

An important consideration in the fight against cancer and cardiovascular diseases when faced with concerns about COVID-19

During the coronavirus pandemic, doctors have recorded fewer cardiovascular complaints, fewer cancer diagnoses and fewer illnesses in general. What appears to be a positive development, however, is in fact mainly the result of missed screening and treatment appointments – with serious consequences for patients. This article explains how visiting the doctor in these times can save lives. 


Paradoxical as it may seem, while Germans have become more health-conscious during the coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19 has led to many people avoiding visits to medical practices for fear of infection. In June 2020, 71 percent of doctors indicated that patients are putting their health at risk by delaying vital treatment.1 This development is not exclusive to treatment, though. Many people have also stopped going for health check-ups and screenings since the start of the pandemic. Some 11 percent of survey respondents said that, due to the coronavirus situation, they had not scheduled screenings for early detection of cancer. At 16 percent, the figure for check-ups was higher still.2



Early diagnosis of cancer and cardiovascular diseases is vital for successful treatment

The general neglect of preventive health care – only one in four people take up advice to screen for early detection of cancer, for example3 – is being exacerbated by the fear of catching COVID-19. Although the situation almost returned to normal over the summer, it is likely that patients will once again stay away from healthcare practices as infection rates continue to rise during the colder months of the year. When it comes to cancer and cardiovascular diseases, however, survival can depend on early diagnosis.  


“A pandemic means nothing to a disease such as cancer. Its occurrence will remain at least at the same level,” says Mathias Rossberg, who knows that many cases are not picked up because of missed screening appointments. Rossberg isresponsible for oncology at Bayer and provides doctors, health insurers and patients’ associations with information about developments such as new drugs and treatments. Regular screenings are particularly important in the treatment of cancer, as most malignant tumors do not initially cause any discomfort and often go undetected. “It’s not like missing a dental check-up. In the case of lung cancer, for instance, delaying screening by just a few weeks can determine whether successful treatment is possible,” underlines Rossberg. 

Mathias Rossberg is Head of Oncology at Bayer Germany.

A preventative screening for timely diagnosis is vital for tackling cardiovascular diseases, but it is even more important to call the emergency doctor in the case of acute symptoms. There must be no hesitation in such a situation – not even out of fear of COVID-19. “At no time over the past 20 years have doctors seen so many severe strokes and heart attacks as right now, and that number was previously down due to the excellent preventive care,  the various treatments and the high level of emergency care available today. It’s absolutely vital for us to convince patients that they should attend their screenings despite the pandemic and contact a doctor directly if they have any health problems,” says cardiologist Martin van Eickels from Bayer’s Medical Affairs team, who is responsible for various areas of treatment.

Cardiologist Martin van Eickels is responsible for various therapeutic areas in Bayer's Medical Affairs department.

“In the case of a suspected heart attack or stroke, rapid medical care is essential to avoid serious consequences, including death,” he adds. In other words, anyone with typical cardiac pain, shortness of breath or a tight chest should immediately call emergency services.


Protecting vulnerable groups while continuing treatments 

The pandemic is putting additional pressure on many patients who are already undergoing treatment due to a chronic illness such as cancer or cardiovascular disease. These groups are among those at increased risk of becoming more seriously ill with COVID-19. This understandably makes them uneasy, but the consequences of not continuing their treatment are disproportionately worse. “Treatment should not be suspended or delayed without consulting the doctor handling the case. In patients with cancer, tumors may continue growing or metastasize and prove hard or impossible to treat later on,” explains Rossberg.


“As a result of the current situation, many patients and family members have questions about treatment and protective measures,” he continues, underlining that the important thing is for patients to keep in touch with their doctor and under no circumstances stop taking their medication without prior consultation. In addition to everyone complying with social distancing and hygiene measures and wearing a mask, medical practices and hospitals have implemented additional hygiene measures to protect patients.



Digital solutions offer new possibilities

During the coronavirus pandemic, doctors are also using digital solutions for diagnostic and treatment purposes. The increasing number of patients taking up the option of video consultations is just one example. Apps such as the free “Mika” cancer app – a digital platform providing individual support for cancer patients and their families – can offer additional help with treatment. Another example is the text message service Bayer offers patients with atrial fibrillation, reminding them to take their tablets.


“In the future, digital medicine applications such as these will provide even more possibilities,” says van Eickels. For instance, Bayer is currently working on a computer program to improve the diagnosis of breast cancer by using artificial intelligence to spot abnormalities on X-rays. This can save doctors a huge amount of diagnostic work, as they no longer need to check the X-rays of healthy women and can concentrate on the cases flagged for attention.



The pandemic is acting as a stimulus for innovations 

Besides encouraging the use of digital tools, the pandemic is also providing an additional incentive for developing better, innovative treatments. “Cancer treatments often have very severe side-effects and weaken the immune system of many patients, which means they can no longer fight off viruses effectively,” explains Rossberg. That makes it particularly important to protect cancer patients against COVID-19.


“We at Bayer have launched new drugs that specifically target cancer,” reveals Rossberg. The new treatment principles are based on comparing the genetic material of tumor cells with healthy cells in the body to detect genetic changes in the tumor and plan more precise treatment. “The pandemic highlights how important it is for us to further increase the speed and intensity of research into more targeted treatments and drugs in the interests of patients,” adds Rossberg.


Research on cardiovascular disease   also continues. Among other things, Bayer researchers are currently working on a new drug to combat chronic kidney disease. Some 40 percent of all patients with type 2 diabetes develop this disease and gradually lose their renal function. When the kidneys no longer work properly, this affects the patient’s blood pressure and puts greater strain on the heart.



Working together to save lives



The current focus on COVID-19 must not result in the neglection of early detection, ongoing treatment or research and development work on new drugs and digital solutions – because these measures save lives. Treatments can only be effective if diseases are diagnosed and tackled in a timely manner. This is not only true of cancer and cardiovascular disease, but health disorders and diseases in general — so now is the time to schedule your next health screening!


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