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.

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The new year brought news of two success stories in our fight to increase accessibility to colorectal cancer (CRC) screening. The first, is a change in private insurance coverage requirements for colonoscopies. The second is from Kentucky, where a pharmacy protocol was passed to allow at-home fecal tests to be taken care of like a regular prescription. More details below.

Coverage for Screening Colonoscopy Without Cost Sharing

A document jointly released by the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Treasury on January 10th 2022 categorically states that private insurance plans are required to cover a follow-up colonoscopy after a positive non-invasive stool-based test or a direct visualization screening test, without any cost-sharing with respect to the colonoscopy for the health plan beneficiary. This coverage requirement will go into effect on May 31, 2022, one year after the updated recommendation on CRC screening was issued by the US Preventive Services Task Force

The Affordable Care Act requires health insurers to fully cover preventive screening. However, colonoscopies done after a stool-based test (such as FIT, gFOBT, or MT-sDNA/sDNA-FIT) were considered diagnostic and were not covered in the same way as decennial colonoscopies. This policy change however, is only applicable to private insurance holders; it does not apply to those who are enrolled in traditional Medicaid and Medicare plans.

Kentucky: Easy Access to Stool-Based Testing

On September 28, 2021, a new pharmacy protocol passed in the state of Kentucky will allow fecal immunochemical test (FIT) or stool DNA test (sDNA-FIT) to be taken care of at the pharmacy like a flu shot or regular prescription.

With the screening age for average-risk adults lowered to 45 years, it is important to eliminate the barriers for those who actually want and need screening. As we have seen over the last couple of years though, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented many from getting the care that they need, including preventive care services. This bill has truly come at the right time. 

“Kentucky is the first state in the nation to have this type of protocol passed, and why not here?” said Dr. Whitney Jones, founder of the Colon Cancer Prevention Project, which is based out of Kentucky. “Colorectal cancer is treatable and preventable when caught early, and this new protocol will allow the general population more avenues to get screened on time.”

 

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