Four oncology trends to watch

Learn about the latest trends in oncology research and treatment.

The latest trends in oncology

While we can all agree that 2020 was an emotionally and physically draining year for healthcare workers, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t disrupt everything. Last year, the oncology field experienced advances in research and care, with studies and trials remaining largely unaffected by the global battle against the coronavirus. Although the pandemic did result in a decline in cancer screenings, most of what we’ve seen lately point to positive trends for both physicians and patients.

Here are some of the trends we’re watching for the remainder of 2021 and beyond.


Reducing costs through telemedicine and wearable technology

Thanks to numerous lockdowns in states and counties throughout the U.S., telemedicine usage increased 52 percent over the previous year. In 2019, only 43% of health centers were capable of telemedicine, but just one year later, 95% of U.S. health centers were using this form of communication with their patients. Oncologists were no exception.

When it comes to oncology, telehealth not only provides a safer way for immunocompromised patients to visit with their physician, but it can also reduce costs. Wearable devices and apps can provide oncologists with a more detailed account of a patient’s health. Not only can this help oncologists treat minor problems before they become severe, but there’s increasing evidence that these technologies can reduce healthcare costs.

As we look toward the future, we believe oncology centers will implement telemedicine as a permanent part of their practice, as Texas Oncology has done. With more than 500 physicians providing consultations, follow-up visits and acute care visits remotely, they can now treat more patients who live in underserved areas or are experiencing health conditions that put them at risk. According to the Journal of Clinical Pathways, healthcare providers will focus on developing a scalable and sustainable balance between in-person and virtual care to improve overall access and care for everyone.


Continued increase in research and testing capabilities

Despite the pandemic, clinical trials continued to move forward in 2020, and those focusing on rare cancers reached historically high launch rates. In 2020, oncology trials increased 60% from 2015, and drug developments in both early and late-stage pipelines increased 40% and 30%, respectively.

In addition, a variety of blood tests are now entering the market that will make cancer screenings easier and more affordable for the general public. Some, like Guardant Health’s test to detect residual or recurrent colorectal cancer and Galleri’s test, which claims to detect more than 50 types of cancer, were launched in 2021. Others, such as Thrive’s CancerSEEK, whose most recent study doubled the number of cancers that were first detected through screening, are in development.


Personalized treatments will continue to advance

Cancer treatments have come a long way in recent years. Molecular pathology has become standard for tumor diagnosis and prognosis, and treatment regimens of the past have been replaced by customized therapies and treatments determined by biomarkers.

Researchers believe that precision medicine will continue to grow, eventually integrating “multi-omic tumor characterization and dynamic monitoring of liquid biopsy samples.” They also envision increasing the use of artificial intelligence to assist with annotation and clinical trials that will test molecular profile–drug matching as well as the effectiveness of various drug-assignment algorithms. All of this will eventually lead to more patients responding well to treatments that have been customized specifically for them.


Short-term increase in late-stage diagnosis

The one negative trend we’re watching is the pandemic’s impact on early diagnosis and treatment of all cancers. According to the Association of Community Cancer Centers’ (ACCC) annual report, Trending Now in Cancer Care 2020, oncology services were reduced during the pandemic in several ways:

  • Elective surgeries were delayed because hospitals needed intensive care beds and space for transfusions to accommodate COVID-19 patients.
  • The number of cancer screenings decreased due to temporary closure of screening sites and primary care providers choosing not to offer screening to their patients.
  • Patients avoided annual physical exams, preventing the opportunity for primary physicians to do initial cancer checks.
  • Some healthcare facilities paused outpatient appointments.

Because of these reductions in screenings and services, one of the focus group participants stated that they experienced a “50% reduction in new breast cancer diagnoses for their cancer program in the second quarter and a 20% reduction for new breast cancers in 2020 overall.”

These decreases in diagnosis will likely result in an increasing number of cancer diagnoses occurring at a more advanced stage in 2021 and beyond, which according to the Journal of Clinical Pathways, will increase morbidity and mortality.


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