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.