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Minimally Invasive Options Boost Sanford’s Colon Cancer Screening Rates

Mar 01, 2019 06:00AM ● By Alyssa McGinnis
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the US after lung cancer. Unlike lung cancer, effective screening tools exist for colorectal cancer. The challenge is to get more Americans to utilize them.

Sanford Health took up that challenge in recent years, joining a national effort by the American Cancer Society to get 80 percent of Americans screened by the end of 2018.

When Sanford joined the effort, their own patient screen rates stood at 68.7 percent. By the end of last year, the number had risen to 77 percent across the footprint of the organization. As of this writing, a 22nd Sanford practice had reached the 80 percent mark. Some are even at 90 percent.

“We have seen an increase of about 20 thousand patients screened over three years,” says Dr. Dan Heinemann, Vice President for Sanford Health Network. “We know that we have saved some individual lives through this effort.”

The life-saving initiative has been a major undertaking for Sanford, which required the entire organization to expand its view of what constitutes effective screening and come up with creative ways to promote it.

“Unfortunately, we know that 30 to 35 percent of people offered colonoscopy, which lasts for 10 years, just say no. They don’t like the prep, they have heard bad things about it, whatever,” says Dr. Heinemann.

So Sanford began also offering two non-invasive tests - fecal immunochemical testing (FIT), which is an annual test, and Cologuard, which can be done every three years. In some cases, FIT tests were mailed to patients. Another effort, called FluFIT, involved offering FIT tests to eligible patients who came for flu shots. Sanford employees in Bismarck and Sioux Falls were also offered one of these screening options, or help scheduling a colonoscopy, at their flu shot visits.

Because about 15 percent of these non-invasive tests require a follow-up colonoscopy, Heinemann says the initiative required Sanford step up efforts to ensure clear communication between primary care, GI, and surgeons.

“It has been a big project involving a lot of people and a lot of different disciplines and it has been great to see how individual practices have implemented it,” says Dr. Heinemann. “We are proud of the progress we have made but we know that we cannot rest when 20 percent of our patients haven’t been screened. Our goal is to continue to improve these numbers.”

In 2017, the American Cancer Society reduced the recommended age for colorectal screening from 50 to 45.