That led Ann Gakumo, PhD, chair of nursing at the College of Nursing and Health Sciences of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, to ask what other factors could account for the delay.
There were several, Dr. Wells said. Precarious housing, for example, could have influenced this lag in follow-up. About one in four participants were in transient housing, and one participant reported having been incarcerated. She gathered street addresses and plans to analyze that data to see whether the cases occurred in clusters in specific neighborhoods, as the Yale data indicated.
In addition, the anoscopy clinic was only available to receive patients one day a week and was staffed with only one clinician who was trained to perform HRA. Wait times could stretch for hours. Sometimes, participants had to leave the clinic to attend to other business, and their appointments needed to be rescheduled, Wells said.
In addition to the sometimes poor understanding of the importance of the follow-up test, Dr. Wells said, “we start to see a layering of these barriers. That’s where we start seeing breakdowns. So I’m hoping in a larger study I can address some of these barriers on a multilevel approach.”
This resonated with Dr. Gakumo.
“Oftentimes, we put so much of the responsibility for this on the part of the client and not enough on the part of the provider or on the systems level,” she said.
Guidelines on follow-up for abnormal anal Pap test results are scarce, mostly because, unlike cervical cancer, the natural history of HPV-related anal cancers hasn’t been established. The HIV Medical Association does recommend anal Pap tests, but only in cases in which “access to appropriate referral for follow-up, including high-resolution anoscopy, is available.”
In an interview, Cecile Lahiri, MD, assistant professor of infectious disease at Emory University, said that, at Ponce De Leon Center, they recommend an anal Pap for women with HIV who have a history of cervical dysplasia.
There is a reliable association between high-grade abnormal Pap tests and cervical cancer, although low-grade changes can resolve on their own. In the case of anal cancer, especially in patients with HIV, low-grade cell changes are predictive; moreover, for such patients, anal cancer is more likely to recur and is harder to treat, Dr. Lahiri said.
“The cervical environment and the anal environment are very different,” said Dr. Lahiri, who works at the Grady Ponce De Leon Center but was not involved in Dr. Wells’ study. Dr. Lahiri is also a coinvestigator of the multisite, randomized, controlled Anal Cancer HSIL Outcomes Research (ANCHOR) study, which seeks to establish whether early treatment of high-grade anal Pap changes is better than a watch-and-wait approach.
Dr. Lahiri said that when the results of that trial become available, they are more likely to know how important early anoscopy and treatment are. The findings should inform guidelines and insurance coverage of anal Pap tests and anoscopy.
In the meantime, she said, she suspected that, with the ANCHOR trial in 2015, many sites’ capacity for anoscopy may have increased, and the wait times may have gone down.
“One of the most important pieces of the study is actually the time period in which it was conducted,” said Dr. Lahiri, who in 2015 became the clinic’s second physician trained in anoscopy. Currently, more than 200 people at the Ponce De Leon Center are enrolled in the ANCHOR trial. In addition, the general capacity for performing anoscopies has gone up nationwide as a result of the trial, which required that more providers learn how to properly perform an HRA. Many clinicians are not routinely trained in performing HRA, including gastroenterologists and surgeons, Dr. Lahiri said.
“It would be interesting to look at the differences, with the start of ANCHOR being the time point for before and after,” she said.
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