I’m in the middle of a blissful stretch of days away from in-person patient care. The days are still full, though, as I try to wrap up a bunch of year-end projects for clients.
I also spent several hours finishing up some Maintenance of Certification and Continuing Education requirements so that I can remain board certified moving forward. Several of the major boards have given people relief from completing their usual requirements this year, which is much appreciated since those of us still seeing patients have been a little busy dealing with the pandemic.
The last couple of weeks have also brought some unexpected changes that have shaken things up in my consulting practice. I’m having to completely re-engineer my plans for 2021 as I seem to suddenly have a lot of open time on my calendar. I can always backfill the time with telehealth visits, but I am really starting to miss being part of the large-scale health IT projects that I worked on when I was in more of a traditional CMIO role. My remaining clients could certainly benefit from full-time clinical informatics attention, but no one has the budget to make it a reality.
There are so many non-COVID initiatives that healthcare organizations could be working on right now. Even with the uncertainties of COVID, there are plenty of diseases that need prevention or early detection. Colorectal cancer is one of those, and JAMA highlighted it this week in a piece about in-home screening tests. Even pre-COVID, colonoscopy as a means of cancer screening presented a lot of barriers – cost, transportation issues, and the dreaded (but not really that bad) prep. At-home kits, while not quite the same level as the gold standard colonoscopy, can help close those gaps in care.
While health plans and other organizations are sending kits to patients who are due for screening, there are plenty of people of screening age who aren’t plugged in with a primary care physician who are falling through a second gap since they’re not an anyone’s database to be detected as needing the test. Some of these are patients who use urgent care centers as their primary source of care, since they either don’t have a primary care physician or don’t think they need one. Given the shortage of primary care physicians in my community, no one is reaching out to these individuals to try to bring them to care. The average wait for a new appointment for a patient who actually wants to see a primary physician is close to three months.
The JAMA piece also highlighted some interesting food for thought facts. One is that colonoscopies and stool tests haven’t been compared in a randomized trial. There is one ongoing to compare the two, with 50,000 veterans randomized to receive either a single colonoscopy versus annual home testing for 10 years. The endpoint is deaths related to colon cancer, and results are due in 2028. Another element that requires thought is the fact that discussing the pros and cons of different colorectal cancer screening tests takes more physician time than actually performing a colonoscopy. Guess which service pays better for the physician? It definitely helps us understand yet another reason why patients are pushed towards colonoscopy as a first-choice test.
I do respect the attitude taken by UnitedHealth, which has an educational campaign that includes an online video. Their main message is that the best test is the one you will actually get done. It sounds simple, but unfortunately there’s a lot of over-thinking in healthcare and sometimes providers miss the obvious due to competing priorities, lack of time, lack of understanding, or all of the above. UnitedHealth is also doing outreach direct to its Medicare members, which will hopefully spur some important conversations between patients and their care teams.
Kaiser Permanente Northern California is another organization that has gone direct to patient, in this case, mailing test kits directly to patients who are eligible for screening. They were able to more than double their rate of screening among members. The piece notes that sending kits isn’t enough, though. There needs to be a wraparound campaign to support patients — including text, email, and phone reminders — to ensure completion. Education is key – people are still squeamish about handling a stool sample at home and mailing it back. We need to figure out how to normalize this experience, even if it takes celebrities showing off their stool kits in an effort to encourage average people to complete screening.
Technology can certainly play a role in this, whether it’s chatbot systems to remind patients to do their tests, apps that gamify medical screenings, or database analysis to determine which patients are most likely to do the test with minimal intervention versus those who need a human nudge. The National Cancer Institute projects a potential excess of 4,500 colon cancer deaths in the coming decade due to pandemic-related delays in diagnosis and treatment. Hopefully, we can harness technology to think outside the primary care box and engage these patients in multiple ways. Otherwise, we’ll see patients presenting with more advanced cancers down the road, which will lead to increased treatment costs as well as disability and death.
Unfortunately, many healthcare organizations are just trying to get by one day at a time as we approach what will perhaps be the highest peak of COVID cases and deaths during the month of January. By necessity, they’re taking the short view and aren’t thinking about consequences we won’t see for five or 10 years. However, even as uncertain as things are today, I want to challenge them that they can’t afford to not think about the longer term. Not to mention that with all the darkness and despair that surrounds healthcare on a daily basis right now, it would be nice to have some wins to celebrate with health outcomes where we can actually make a difference for our loved ones and our communities. COVID is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, but colorectal cancer and other life-altering diseases will continue to impact patients long after COVID is under control.
Is your organization doing preventive outreach initiatives or focusing on non-COVID health conditions? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.