Medically underserved communities experience significant health care inequities, including preventive screening for colorectal cancer (CRC) and CRC-related morbidity and mortality. Multilevel barriers to CRC screening and subsequent follow-up create disparities and inequities in individual outcomes. Pandemic-related pre-procedure COVID-19 testing has been shown to cause higher rates of endoscopy cancellations among patients from marginalized populations. This, in addition to financial concerns, patient mistrust, lack of access to specialists and colonoscopy services are just some of the barriers to completion of CRC screening and follow-up procedures. 

CRC Screening Disparities: What’s the Solution?

The fecal immunochemical test (FIT) is one of the most widely used CRC screening methods globally and is an affordable screening tool for studying large populations. FIT detects hidden blood in stool, which can potentially be an early sign of cancer, and is an affordable home-health test with an overall 95% diagnostic accuracy for CRC. However, to be an effective screening tool, each step of the multi-step screening process must be completed: a diagnostic colonoscopy must follow a positive FIT test. Failure to complete the screening process is associated with higher rates of CRC mortality. 

While patient navigation helps with follow-up after a positive FIT test, only one-third of patients complete colonoscopy. Proactive, organized CRC screening involving centralized tracking, reminders, alerts for providers, and culturally competent and tailored messaging for patients are more effective for improving screening rates for White and African American patients. Such tactics have also reduced the differences in screening rates and cancer-specific mortality between White and African American patients. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted medically-underserved communities. African American, American Indian/Alaska Natives, and Hispanic populations have been particularly hard hit. COVID-19 testing requirements prior to endoscopy have disproportionately affected medically-underserved communities. 

While COVID-19 testing was a requirement earlier in the pandemic, the American Gastroenterological Association updated its guidelines as our understanding of viral transmission improved, vaccines became available, and viral transmission during endoscopy was found to be minimal. However, multiple institutions have continued to require pre-procedure COVID-19 testing prior to medical procedure—including endoscopy—which has led to high rates of endoscopy cancellations among individuals from marginalized populations. Pre-procedure testing may have introduced an additional barrier to care and increased existing disparities in health care and health outcomes. 

Recommendations for Eliminating Screening Barriers

Researchers have recommended the following strategies to reduce the impact of disparities due to COVID-19 testing:

  • Mailing SARS-CoV2 testing kits to endoscopy patients several weeks pre-procedure
  • Offering rapid testing to patients on the day of the procedure
  • Offering an opt-out option for testing due to hardships, such as the inability to schedule testing due to work schedules, difficulties finding transportation, or the need for childcare

Multilevel barriers to CRC screening and appropriate follow-up after screening create disparities and inequities in health care outcomes. Healthcare systems must collaborate with healthcare providers, community leaders, and social service representatives to improve access to care and guarantee equitable health care for all.  

 

Sahar Alam is a Colon Cancer Prevention Intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation.

Jamie Crespo lives in Seattle, Washington and is a Colon Cancer Foundation (CCF) Champion. She was introduced to CCF through the New York City marathon when she registered to run for our charity in 2020. When looking through charities, she found that CCF’s mission and cause was relevant to her personal experience with her family. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she ran the marathon in 2021.

In 2017, Jamie’s parents who were both in their 60s had never undergone a screening colonoscopy. In the absence of a family history of colon cancer, they did not even consider scheduling one. However, her father started losing a significant amount of weight and seemed very pale. When Jamie persuaded him to see a doctor, they discovered he had internal bleeding. After running some tests, the doctors found a mass in his colon. Following a colectomy, he was diagnosed with stage 3B colon cancer. Jamie’s father started chemotherapy in the fall of 2017 and is, fortunately, in remission!

In the beginning of the same year, Jamie’s mother was to receive a check-up but it was delayed to the fall due to her father’s diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Unfortunately, when her mother went through a screening colonoscopy, she was diagnosed with stage 1 colon cancer. Thankfully, she was able to undergo a laparoscopic colectomy, in time, and remains in remission.

With no known history of colon cancer in her family, Jamie emphasizes that everyone should initiate their screening at the recommended age of 45 years. She promotes preventative care knowing that typically, individuals who present with symptoms may be diagnosed at a more advanced stage when the disease is less treatable. Ever since her parents’ diagnoses, Jamie posts regularly on social media and raises money for the CCF. She is a member of the Club Seattle Runners Division and posted photos of her run to promote colorectal cancer awareness as well as relay her personal story of colorectal cancer. 

You can find Jamie on Instagram: @jamielynette

Kenadi Kaewmanaprasert is a Colon Cancer Prevention Intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation. 

The American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) has developed 8 position statementssolutions to eliminate colorectal cancer (CRC) screening barriers and reduce CRC burden. Evidence supports the existence of disparities in CRC screening: individuals with low income and lack of access to insurance coverage are disproportionately affected. Cost-sharing for preventive screening, in the form of deductibles and copayments, can be a financial barrier for some individuals. CRC screening programs and policies should cover all the steps following screening because each element is essential to the effectiveness of a screening program. Furthermore, these factors should not be subject to cost-sharing. Uniform, equitable delivery of screening programs will not only improve adherence and participation in CRC screening but also eliminate health disparities and reduce the burden of CRC in the United States. 

The following infographic details AGA’s approach:

The position statements have been published in Gastroenterology.

 

Photo credit: Clarissa Watson on Unsplash

Sahar Alam is a Colorectal Cancer Prevention Intern at the Colon Cancer Foundation.

Colonoscopy is the most effective test for colorectal cancer (CRC) screening and prevention. This procedure minimizes the incidence and mortality of colorectal cancer through early detection. During a colonoscopy, a physician inserts, and threads a flexible tube with a tiny camera called a colonoscope into the rectum and through the entire colon, or large intestine. This helps identify abnormal growths and excise any polyps which can then be sent for diagnosis.

However, research has shown that despite being the gold-standard for CRC screening, 23-30% of adenomas are overlooked and missed during a traditional colonoscopy, the success of which can vary depending on operator skills.

“Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States and it is one of the few cancers that can be prevented if caught early,” said Aasma Shaukat, MD, MPH at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and the Robert M. and Mary H. Glickman Professor of Medicine and Gastroenterology and Director of Outcomes Research for the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. “Our mission remains to improve and enhance the quality and efficacy of the colonoscopy across the board to provide the best care for patients.”  

In order to improve the efficiency and efficacy of colonoscopies, Dr. Shaukat and her team have developed an artificial intelligence (AI) platform to assist endoscopists. The findings of their  prospective, randomized, multicenter collaborative study to test the AI platform were recently published in the journal Gastroenterology. Between January and September 2021, twenty-two skilled, board-certified gastroenterologists performed colonoscopies on 1,440 patients. The patients were randomized to receive a traditional colonoscopy or a colonoscopy with computer-aided detection software —the software detects colorectal polyps during high-definition white-light colonoscopy procedures. This device can identify potential polyps and identify areas of concern, refining the results of the procedure in real-time. 

The researchers found that using AI during a screening colonoscopy increased the adenoma per colonoscopy rate by 22%: from 0.82 to 1.05. This evidence indicates that AI can be an effective and efficient tool for gastroenterologists and endoscopists to reduce the number of overlooked polyps left behind in the colon, many of which can be precancerous. 

Dr. Shaukat states, “Our findings add to the growing amount of literature that shows using computer-aided technology during an endoscopy procedure can improve the quality of exams performed and improve outcomes for our patients. Several software technologies are currently available for clinicians and incorporating the use of these resources will only enhance the care we provide our patients and improve the quality of exams we as physicians are able to perform.”

Sahar Alam is a Colorectal Cancer Prevention intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation.

Mom, wife, realtor, runner, cellist, and colon cancer survivor for five and a half years. Suzanne Miller was taken aback when she was diagnosed with Stage I colon cancer at the age of 40. Colorectal cancer screenings start at 45 years for average-risk adults. She was in good health, trained for marathons, and ate well. Luckily, she was able to undergo surgery on November 18, 2016, to remove the cancer. 

Suzanne realized she aspired to turn this event in her life into something good rather than dwelling on the fact that she had cancer. Since her surgery, on the 18th of each month, she spreads awareness by posting on Instagram and Facebook to remind individuals to “keep their rear in the clear.” Everyone who is over 45, under 45 with symptoms, or has a family history of colon or rectal cancer should get screened for colorectal cancer. Those with a family history of colorectal cancer should start screenings at 40 years or 10 years prior to the earliest diagnosis age in their family.

Survivor and Colon Cancer Awareness Advocate

Suzanne came across the Colon Cancer Foundation (CCF) while she was researching for a marathon to run in New York while raising money for a charity. She reached out to the Foundation and planned to run in the 2020 marathon, but it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That didn’t dampen Suzanne’s spirit. She completed the marathon in her hometown and raised the money with support from her friends and family members who participated in the run. She looks forward to running again in the 2023 Colon Cancer Challenge.

This past February, as a CCF Champion, Suzanne and her husband were invited to attend the Cologuard Classic in Tucson, Arizona. She represented CCF and was able to meet 90 other like-minded individuals who shared her passion to make a difference and prevent early onset of colon cancer. Inspired to raise money and awareness in her hometown, Suzanne partnered with her husband’s golf club to hold a fundraising golf tournament on May 16, 2022. She was supported in her efforts by her friend, a 10-year colon cancer survivor who also works to spread colorectal cancer awareness. The event had 10 sponsors, 13 teams, and 20 hole sponsors that covered most of the costs. Half of the profits will go to their local nonprofit, CRC Life, and the other half will go to CCF.

Suzanne emphasizes that people need to be more comfortable discussing colon cancer, as they do other topics. Ever since she began raising awareness on social media, Suzanne has received messages from individuals when they received a colonoscopy, got a polyp removed, or discovered they have a family history of colon cancer. Through her experience as a young, healthy woman diagnosed with colon cancer, she brings attention to the fact that cancer does not discriminate. She always tells individuals to remind their friends and family to get a colonoscopy. “Even having one person find out that they do not have cancer is a win,” she says. Suzanne loves that we live in a world where we can speak our mind, while being kind and courteous, and have people that listen and don’t discount the matter at hand. 

 

Kenadi Kaewmanaprasert is an intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation.

In past years, the rate of colorectal cancer (CRC) has become a serious public health problem in Mississippi. A study conducted in 2020 showed that Mississippi had one of the highest mortality rates from CRC as well as one of the CRC lowest screening rates between 2015 and 2019. The state also leads the nation in cardiovascular disease mortality rates as well as diabetes mortality. These are both known comorbidities for many types of cancers, including CRC. 

One theory as to why the screening rates are so low in Mississippi is that about 55% of the state’s population resides in rural locations, which may make it hard for some individuals to access regular medical care. The rural population in Mississippi has a high rate of uninsured individuals making it hard for this population to afford regular screenings. In 2016, 14% of the population under 65 were uninsured. 

Another theory as to why CRC rates are so prevalent in Mississippi is that the diet of many of the residents is high in red meat and low in fiber. This is in part due to a culture that relies on red meat and processed foods. This diet is also more prevalent in areas that have a low socioeconomic background, as it can be difficult to obtain healthy food if one lives in a food desert. 

Colorectal cancer-related mortality in those over 50 (2014-2018).
Data source: https://statecancerprofiles.cancer.gov/map/map.noimage.php.

Fortunately, the Mississippi government recognized the issue and has developed a plan to help increase the screening rate of residents in Mississippi and decrease mortality rates 70X2020 was initiated in 2014. Since the start of the program, there has been an increase in individuals who got screened, specifically in minority communities. So far, screening rates have improved from 55% in 2014 to 69.9% in 2020. For white individuals there was a compliance rate of just under 70% and for black individuals there was a compliance rate of just above 70% in 2020. 

From this case study, we are able to theorize that screening and diet play a crucial role in the development of CRC. We are also able to see that there is a strong correlation between screening rates and CRC mortality rates. 

A recent article published in the New England Journal of Medicine stressed the need to make health equity our national priority. The researchers identified significant differences in the screening rates between black and white Americans. Additionally, they found that improvements in screening rates, more timely treatments, as well as earlier detection of cancer significantly improved cancer outcomes. 

The researchers evaluated the association between rates of colorectal cancer screening as well as age-standardized incidence rates between 2000 to 2019 among non-Hispanic black (hereafter black) and non-Hispanic white (hereafter white) persons 50 to 75 years of age who were members of the Kaiser Permanente Northern California (KPNC) health plan. The researchers then conducted follow-ups with participants until the age of 79 years to investigate screening patterns as well as incidence rates.

Between the years 2006 and 2008, KPNC began a population-based colorectal cancer screening program that utilized proactive mail-in fecal tests and colonoscopies upon request. The study found that screening rates for black individuals increased from 42% in 2000 to 80% in 2019 and those for white individuals increased from 40% in 2000 to 83% in 2019. The study also investigated colorectal cancer-specific mortality in both groups. Among black populations, there were 54 deaths per 100,000 in 2007, which dropped to 21 cases per 100,000 in 2019. Among white populations, colorectal cancer-specific mortality decreased from 33 per 100,00 in 2007 to 20 per 100,000 in 2019. 

After evaluating the yearly trends, the researchers were able to hypothesize that one of the major reasons for this drop in incidence as well as mortality from colorectal cancer in both black and white individuals was the sustained delivery strategies across the care continuum, including advancements in prevention methods, earlier detection of treatable cancers, and more timely treatments. Overall, the results of this study showed that it is possible to increase screening and decrease the incidence and mortality of colorectal cancer when the correct methods are implemented. 

Abigail Parker is a Colorectal Cancer Prevention Intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation.

Image source: anarosadebastiani (Pixaby) 

Colorectal cancer and breast cancer screening programs, when implemented properly, have led to significant reduction in death. However, screening uptake varies greatly across the U.S. Rural communities, specifically in Appalachia, the Mississippi delta, frontier lands, and prairie lands face issues with access that are accentuated by poor health behaviors.

A 2021 cross-sectional study by Shete et al, which was recently published in JAMA found that urban women were significantly more likely to be adherent to colorectal cancer screening as compared to women residing in rural areas (82% vs 78%, respectively; P=.01). When they conducted a multi-variable mixed effects analysis, they found that rural women had 19% lower odds of being adherent to colorectal cancer screening guidelines. 

Along with a difference in screening adherence, there was a significant difference in beliefs and understanding of cancer, health, and screening. When comparing the thoughts of women dwelling in rural vs. urban areas regarding cancer and cancer screening:

  • 62% vs 52% believed “It seems like everything causes cancer”
  • 24% vs 17% believed “There’s not much you can do to lower your chances of getting cancer”
  • 76% vs 67% believed “There are so many different recommendations about preventing cancer, it’s hard to know which ones to follow”

Despite the differences in beliefs and perception of cancer screening overall, rural and urban women were similarly adherent (81% vs 81%) to breast cancer screening. Here the authors hypothesize that the difference in colorectal cancer screening is likely due to the difference in screening diffusion in the rural areas.

Newer colorectal screening technologies like fecal immunochemical tests (FIT) may work better in a rural setting because rural women are 69% more likely to skip going to a doctor due to cost. Taking away the face to face component can reduce cost for insurance companies and by effect patients, which could increase screening uptake. 

FIT tests can also be useful for working women. Among women over the age of 65, the adherence rate to colorectal cancer screening recommendations was significantly higher than among women ages 50-64 years. This difference in uptake due to age is likely because older/retired women do not have to take time off of work for screening tests such as a colonoscopy or a sigmoidoscopy.  

Furthermore, patients with insurance were 2 to 3 times more likely to get screened, so changes in insurance care coverage—particularly, the removal of a copayment for a preventive service—through the Affordable Care Act would increase screening uptake. In order to increase rural colorectal cancer screening uptake, programs that identify and act on access issues are needed as are policies that can improve access at the local level.

A study published in the Journal of Medical Economics simulating a cohort of one million Medicare patientsUS adults aged 65 years and olderwith average risk of colorectal cancer, investigated the cost-effectiveness of non-invasive fecal tests (fecal immunochemical test (FIT), fecal occult blood test (FOBT), and multi target stool DNA test (mt-sDNA)). The researchers used the Colorectal Cancer and Adenoma Incidence and Mortality Microsimulation Model (CRC-AIM) with test-specific adherence data to estimate the cost-effectiveness of the various options.

Assuming 100% adherence follow-up colonoscopies and using real-world screening adherence data, the researchers found that mt-sDNA was cost-effective when compared to FOBT but not FIT. Cost-effectiveness was defined at the $100,000/quality adjusted life-year (QALY) threshold. 

  •     $62, 814/QALY when compared to FIT
  •   $39,171/QALY when compared to FOBT

The assumption of100% adherence to follow-up colonoscopies is not a significant limitation to this study because this is just one scenario and also because follow-up colonoscopies are covered under Medicare. Since follow-up colonoscopies are covered under Medicare there is not a financial disincentive to get a colonoscopy and therefore most people under Medicare do get the colonoscopy.  Moreover, when the authors ran the model using real-world follow up-colonoscopy and screening adherence rates, they found that mt-sDNA was even more cost-effective:

  •   $31,725/QALY when compared to FIT
  •   $28,465/QALY when compared to FOBT

Generally an incremental cost-effectiveness ratio (ICER) of less than $100,000 is considered good value, and those under $61,000/QALY is considered cost-effective. Therefore, when real-world adherence rates were considered, mt-sDNA was the more cost-effective option compared to both FIT and FOBT and resulted in greater reductions in CRC incidence and mortality.

Cost-effectiveness analyses are important for determining which screening test performs better than the others, and where to relocate resources to achieve the best health outcomes for the lowest possible cost. These types of studies on Medicare populations are important because they help policy makers make informed decisions on resource allocation.

 

Gargi Patel is a Colon Cancer Prevention Intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation.

“This is a problem with a solution. The solution is awareness of the colorectal cancer problem and getting screened.”
– Dr. Thomas K. Weber, Founder, Colon Cancer Foundation

My late father Dr. Thomas Weber founded the Colon Cancer Foundation (CCF) because he recognized the power of preventing colorectal cancer and diagnosing it early through screenings. The screenings identify precancerous polyps and early stage growths that doctors can remove.

The CCF has now led the mission of raising awareness and increasing screenings for 19 years.

As we enter Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March, you can take direct action today to solve the colorectal cancer problem and save lives:

Talk to your doctor about getting a colonoscopy if you are 45 years or older. If you are younger than 45 but have one or more family members that were diagnosed with colorectal cancer, ask your doctor if you should start screening earlier.

Participate and help increase visibility for CCF’s awareness campaigns and fund colorectal cancer screenings.

Donate Now: The funds collected through your fundraising efforts enable us to reach more people with life saving public awareness, prevention, and research programs.

Two Reasons to Show Your Support

Reason #1: Screenings were down due to COVID-19 but are beginning to pick up again. That’s great news, but it is critical that colonoscopy rates grow past pre-pandemic levels to save lives.

Reason #2:  Deaths from colorectal cancer in people ages 0-49 are increasing. Educating our friends and family with high risk factors can help identify and treat the disease in young people.

CCF’s March Awareness events, tools, and resources are designed to maximize the impact of your donations.

Thank you for taking action!

Sincerely,

Nick Weber

P.S. Your support, plus our ongoing work to mobilize the medical community to address colorectal cancer in young people with the Early-Age Onset Colorectal Cancer Summit, will make a difference!