The use of electronic health records can greatly boost colon cancer screening rates in patients who don’t seek the test on their own, according to a new study.
Researchers with the Group Health Research Institute found practices that use centralized, automated electronic health records to identify patients who should be screened regularly for cancer of the colon and rectum — and to encourage them to get tested — can double the rate of the potentially life-saving procedures.
"Screening for colorectal cancer can save lives, by finding cancer early — and even by detecting polyps before cancer starts," said Beverly B. Green, M.D., a family physician at Group Health who led the study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. "But screening can't help if you don't do it — and do it regularly."
More than one in 20 Americans will develop colorectal cancer, which is second only to lung cancer in causing deaths from cancer, federal health statistics show. But Dr. Green noted screening for colorectal cancer is strongly recommended for everyone age 50 to 75 years, but almost half of Americans do not get screened regularly — far below the screening rates for cervical and breast cancer.
For the study, researchers tracked 4,675 patients, aged 50 to 73, who weren't up to date for colorectal cancer screening. The found those who were automatically notified when they were due for a screening — but automated letter, a phone call, or a nurse helping to schedule a procedure — were far more likely to have a colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, or other procedure (such as a stool test) than those who group received standard care.
The two-year costs of the automated approach plus the screening were also $89 lower than if the patients had received only usual care. The reason: more of those in the automated care group choose the less-costly stool test instead of sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy.
"It's important to find ways to ensure that more people are screened for colorectal cancer — and keep being screened regularly," Dr. Green said. "I've seen patients die from this cancer. So I was thrilled to find that our intervention doubled screening rates and kept them up to date regularly over two years in people who hadn't been getting regular screening."
The study was funded, in part, by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health.
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