Each year in the month of March, advocates, physicians, and health care educators come together to promote the importance of colorectal cancer screening during Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. As independent GI physicians, we work within our communities to promote colorectal screening year-round.
We also understand that our education efforts do not end with the people in our community who need to be screened. Independent GI practices also engage with primary care physicians who often initiate conversations about available screening tests and when people should be screened.
Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States.1 It is expected to kill more than 50,000 Americans this year alone.2 This is why screening for colorectal cancer is so important. The American Cancer Society recommends screening for all average-risk patients aged 45-75 years.3
The good news? If caught early, the survival rate is very high. In fact, when caught early, the five-year survival rate is 90 percent. Unfortunately, one in three Americans who are eligible for screenings do not get screened. For certain groups, there are larger numbers of people who are not getting screened. And there are groups for whom the death rates from colorectal cancer are much higher.
Disparities in colorectal cancer screenings
According to the American Cancer Society, Blacks and Hispanics are less likely to receive prompt follow up after an abnormal CRC screening result and are more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage cancer.4 African Americans have the highest death rate when compared with all other racial groups in the United States. American Indians and Alaska Natives are the only groups for which CRC death rates are not declining.
There are many factors that drive disparities, but the main factors seem to be socioeconomic status and differences in access to early detection and treatment. While some of these issues are complex and difficult to change, increasing awareness and providing education can be easier than you might think.
Working with your community as a private GI practitioner
To address economic factors, Atlanta Gastroenterology Associates has a program that provides resources on a sliding fee scale to people in our community who do not have insurance and are concerned about having to pay for CRC screening out of pocket. This includes the costs for anesthesia, colonoscopy, and pathology services.
We also have a Direct Access Program, which allows people to self-schedule a screening and fill out a survey that assesses their candidacy for screening colonoscopy. This allows our patients to bypass an initial prescreening office visit and associated copays. Patients are provided instructions for colonoscopy prep and show up for the colonoscopy on the day of their procedure. When the colonoscopy is completed, we give them a patient education card on CRC screening to share with friends and family members who need to be screened.
Atlanta is a very diverse city, and representation is important. But, fortunately, the size of Atlanta Gastroenterology Associates allows us to have representation within many communities. We attend a significant number of health fairs and community events, many of which are sourced internally. Our physicians and staff are members of churches and social groups that we work with to provide screening materials and conduct informational events.
Word of mouth is the best advertising, and it works the same way with health education. There are a lot of myths that we must debunk. And in many of our communities, people are worrying about paying the bills to keep the lights on – they are not thinking about getting screened. But, if they hear from a friend or family member that their screening colonoscopy was a good experience and that resources were provided to help pay for the procedure, it really does make a difference.
You do not need to join a large practice to have an impact. All over the country, there are community groups working to increase screening rates, and engaging with those groups is a good start. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all using social media and other platforms to connect. You do not need a lot of resources to set up a Zoom meeting with people in your community to discuss CRC screening.