On June 17, 2022, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) held a policy summit to discuss cancer care in the workplace and building a 21st century workplace for patients, survivors, and caretakers.

One of the distinct portions of this summit was a panel on Patients, Survivors, and Caregivers in the Workplace: Contemporary Barriers and Solutions to Achieving Inclusive Workplaces. Panel moderator John Sweetenham, MD, FRCP, FACP, FASCO, Chair, NCCN Board of Directors, and Professor of Medicine, Associate Director of Clinical Affairs, UT Southwestern Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, noted that the disproportionate distribution of accommodations due to socioeconomic differences leads to inadequate care and suboptimal outcomes for certain populations.

Rebecca V. Nellis, MPP, Executive Director, Cancer and Careers, shared results from a 2021 Cancer and Careers/Harris Poll Survey, which found that for three-fourths of responders, work helped them cope and aided in their recovery. These statistics show us that we can work towards a healthier workplace environment for cancer patients  and subsequently influence their health outcomes. Lynn Zonakis, BA, BSN, Principal, Zonakis Consulting, former Managing Director of Health Strategy and Resources for Delta Air Lines, shared the strategies employed by Delta for combating the difficulties associated with a cancer diagnosis. “At all levels, I would say that people were very open to disclosure, and that was the vast norm, because in each work unit, at every level, there were multiple cancer survivors or survivorship in family members, so they understood that it was to their benefit to disclose.”

She did elaborate on the associated risks,  citing the example of pilots at risk of losing their jobs when disclosing mental health risks. This can be applied to a cancer diagnosis as well. “At a lot of organizations it can put you at risk. Some people will feel that their job could be vulnerable, and they won’t disclose it, so there’s no one size fits all,” she noted.

Workplace Flexibility for Patients and for Caregivers

Angela Mysliwiec, MD, Senior Medical Director, WellMed, touched on an important aspect of the support process: the caregivers. She spoke about a program at WellMed dedicated to assisting caregivers, who she explained are experiencing the same challenges as the person they’re caring for. “When it comes to work they need flexibility, they need to take care of themselves, they need their mental health cared for, and the organizations themselves who are often ill equipped to manage a person on staff with cancer can often be even more ill equipped to manage the caregiver,” Mysliwiec said.

Randy A. Jones, PhD, RN, FAAN, Professor, Associate Dean for Partner Development and Engagement, and Assistant Director of Community Outreach and Engagement at the University of Virginia, concurred with Mysliwiec. “Caregivers share the anxiety, they share the fatigue, along with some of the patients with cancer that they’re dealing with.” He also made a point about institutions having the resources to empower patients, especially since “people are more aware of these issues, you know people understand that there is an issue between how patients are getting benefits as well as how they may be navigating the system.”

Sweetenham and Nellis closed the panel by highlighting the importance of proactive planning instead of reactive planning. They recommended that organizations should implement workplace flexibility that should be communicated upfront to new employees, and then practice it on a regular basis instead of making adjustments and assumptions as events occur.

Employer Policies Play a Big Role 

Joanna Fawzy Morales, Esq., Chief Executive Officer, Triage Cancer, spoke to the audience about The Policy Landscape to Support Patients, Survivors, and Caregivers at Work. Morales pointed out that employment can be a contributor to financial toxicity in the form of lost wages, employee benefits, and more. She further elaborated on a point that Nellis had made about battling assumptions, saying that “Employers have assumptions about their employees who’ve been diagnosed with cancer and their ability to do their jobs. Health care professionals make a whole lot of assumptions about their patients and whether or not they want to work or they can work.”

Explaining the current and suggested employment rights and accommodations, Morales said that they play a big role in helping patients make educated decisions on next actions. While there is a significant lack of awareness of protections available through the law, there are several gaps that need to be bridged. “There are many opportunities to close those gaps to improve the quality of life of patients and their families and mitigate the financial toxicity of a cancer diagnosis,” she added. She concluded her talk by emphasizing the need to educate employers, health care professionals, and the cancer community.

From informing the employer to the employee to equitable care for patients and their caregivers, this policy summit discussed various aspects of cancer in the workplace, and how we can improve the experience for those involved.

Juhi Patel is a Colorectal Cancer Prevention Intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation.

Image credit: Mohamed Hassan, Pixabay

 

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.

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.