Automated Telephone Calls to Enhance Colorectal Cancer Screening: Economic Analysis

Published Online: November 19, 2012
David H. Smith, RPh, PhD; Adrianne C. Feldstein, MD, MS; Nancy Perrin, PhD; A. Gabriela Rosales, MS; David M. Mosen, PhD, MPH; Elizabeth G. Liles, MD; Jennifer L. Schneider, MPH; Jennifer E. Lafata, PhD; Ronald E. Myers, PhD; and Russell E. Glasgow, PhD
Objectives: To estimate the cost-effectiveness of an automated telephone intervention for colorectal cancer screening from a managed care perspective, using data from a pragmatic randomized controlled trial.

Methods: Intervention patients received calls for fecal occult blood testing (FOBT) screening. We searched patients’ electronic medical records for any screening (defined as FOBT, flexible sigmoidoscopy, double-contrast barium enema, or colonoscopy) during follow-up. Intervention costs included project implementation and management, telephone calls, patient identification, and tracking. Screening costs included FOBT (kits, mailing, and processing) and any completed screening tests during follow-up. We estimated the incremental cost-effectiveness ratio (ICER) of the cost per additional screen.

Results: At 6 months, average costs for intervention and control patients were $37 (25% screened) and $34 (19% screened), respectively. The ICER at 6 months was $42 per additional screen, less than half what other studies have reported. Cost-effectiveness probability was 0.49, 0.84, and 0.99 for willingness-to-pay thresholds of $40, $100, and $200, respectively. Similar results were seen at 9 months. A greater increase in FOBT testing was seen for patients aged >70 years (45/100 intervention, 33/100 control) compared with younger patients (25/100 intervention, 21/100 control). The intervention was dominant for patients aged >70 years and was $73 per additional screen for younger patients. It increased screening rates by about 6% and costs by $3 per patient.

Conclusions: At willingness to pay of $100 or more per additional screening test, an automated telephone reminder intervention can be an optimal use of resources.

(Am J Manag Care. 2012;18(11):691-699)
Colorectal cancer screening has been shown to be a cost-effective intervention, but uncertainty remains over the most efficient methods for increasing screening rates.

  • Automated phone calling increased screening rates by about 6% and costs by $3 per patient.

  • The incremental cost-effectiveness ratio per additional screen of $40 is less than half what other studies have reported.

  • At a willingness to pay of $100 or higher per additional screening test, our study suggests an automated telephone reminder intervention can be an optimal use of resources.
Colorectal cancer (CRC) is a common and often lethal disease with a lifetime risk of about 1 in 20; it causes more than 51,000 deaths annually in the United States. When diagnosed at late stages the 5-year survival rate is less than 12%, but patients with localized tumors have a 5-year survival rate greater than 90%.1 Early detection is clearly a key to improving survival, and screening has been shown to be cost-effective (eg, at a commonly used threshold of $50,000 per year of life gained), with some analyses even suggesting that screening is cost-saving.2 While CRC screening rates have increased in recent years, they are still below 60% for people aged <64 years and below 75% for those aged >65 years.3

Because the favorable cost-effectiveness of CRC screening is now established, attention has shifted to optimizing methods for increasing adherence with CRC screening. The cost-effectiveness of several intervention types has been reported, including mailing stool cards with and without targeted calls, where the cost per additional patient screened has ranged from about $100 to more than $6000 depending on the intensity of the intervention4,5; and physician education efforts,6,7 where the cost per additional patient screened has ranged from about $100 to $1000.

Automated telephone calls have been used to remind and inform patients about a wide range of preventive and therapeutic healthcare interventions.8-11 A recently reported pragmatic trial by our group showed that automated telephone reminders significantly improved CRC screening rates.9 Using data from that randomized control trial, this report focuses on the cost-effectiveness of telephone reminders compared with usual care per additional patient screened.


We used findings from a practical randomized control trial that enrolled patients due for CRC screening (as defined by the National Council for Quality Assurance) to estimate the cost-effectiveness of an automated telephone intervention for CRC screening relative to usual care. The cost analysis focused on replication costs12 from the perspective of a health maintenance organization (HMO) and included any method of screening rather than just fecal occult blood testing (FOBT). Our follow-up was less than 1 year, so costs and effects were not discounted; costs were inflated to reflect 2008 dollars.13

Trial Design

A complete description of the trial has been reported elsewhere.9 The trial was conducted at Kaiser Permanente Northwest, a not-for-profit, group-model HMO, and was approved by its institutional review board. Figure 1 details how patients were selected in the randomized control trial; 6000 patients (out of 32,320) were randomly allocated to automated telephone contact or usual care. Consistent with US Preventive Services Task Force CRC screening guidelines in place at the time of trial initiation,14 we selected average-risk patients aged 51 to 80 years who were eligible for screening (eg, had no evidence of relevant screening in the HMO’s records and did not have risk factors indicating need for disease monitoring).

Intervention Group

Intervention group patients were exposed to calls prompting FOBT screening (call type 1) and FOBT return reminder calls (call type 2); while these calls were not personalized, they were directed toward specific individuals. Figure 2 details the timing of these calls. Call type 1 was brief (1 minute), provided information about the benefits of CRC screening, and encouraged FOBT as a relatively simple and low-risk method of cancer screening. Recipients who answered could immediately request a mailed FOBT kit by touch-tone. A detailed message that included a telephone number to call for FOBT kit requests was left via voice mail for unanswered calls. Patients who did not get CRC screening received up to 2 “general” automated reminder calls, 6 weeks apart. One additional reminder call (call type 2) was made to patients who had requested an FOBT kit but did not return it within 5 weeks from the date of request; those patients were given the opportunity to request an additional FOBT kit. All FOBT kits used the guaiac method (Hemoccult II; Beckman Coulter, Inc, Brea, California), which requires samples from 3 consecutive stools, and were delivered via standard mail.

Usual Care

Patients randomized to usual care did not receive the telephone contact intervention. Their CRC screening, if any, occurred via normal care processes. At the time of the study, clinicians had access to national guidelines, Intranetbased screening guidelines, and a “panel support tool” (an electronic prompt system embedded in the electronic medical record that informed clinicians which patients were due for preventive services, including CRC screening). For usual care patients, FOBT kits were obtained after a clinician order by picking the kit up either from the laboratory at the clinic where they received their care or from the HMO’s influenza immunization service, located in primary care clinics.

Outcome Measures

We used the HMO’s electronic data systems to identify patient outcomes. We specified 2 outcomes for the analysis: the cost per any completed screen and the cost per positive FOBT screen. Even though the intervention promoted FOBT, we defined a completed screen as a record of any US Preventive Services Task Force–recognized screening test (FOBT, flexible sigmoidoscopy, double-contrast barium enema [DCBE], or colonoscopy) during follow-up. For both outcomes, a patient was counted as screened only once, even if he or she had multiple tests; but as detailed below, costs for all screening tests during follow-up were included. We used the term “nonfecal tests” to collectively refer to those more invasive testing methods including flexible sigmoidoscopy, DCBE, and colonoscopy. We examined the effect of the intervention on both FOBT and nonfecal tests separately.


We estimated staff costs associated with the intervention from clinical trial records and study staff time estimates. These costs included project management time to oversee the entire process and computer programming efforts for patient identification, electronic file preparation for the automated telephone call vendor, and patient tracking (eg, for repeat calls to nonresponders). To improve generalizability to other systems, salary costs were taken from the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics.15 To fully allocate the costs we added a fringe benefit rate of 30% and overhead rate of 20%. The cost of the calls and their content was based on vendor charges. The cost of developing and maintaining the automated telephone system was embedded in the vendor charge to the HMO. FOBT kit mailing costs were estimated based on bulk mailing rates.

For patients in both groups, the costs associated with the FOBT testing kit, processing, and reporting was estimated from the HMO’s laboratory charges to nonmembers. Clinician time and cost associated with FOBT laboratory result review and follow-up with patients was estimated from a previous economic evaluation in laboratory medicine16 and from interviews with those doing the work. Costs for other types of testing, including DCBE, flexible sigmoidoscopy, and endoscopy, came from the HMO’s accounting database. While a patient was counted as screened only 1 time, all CRC testing-related costs during the follow-up were enumerated and assigned to that patient. We did this because the intervention may have had knock-on effects for other types of CRC testing, including both diagnostic (eg, following a positive FOBT) and screening (eg, encouraging a patient to request colonoscopy screening), and we wanted to more fully account for the economic consequences of the intervention. For example, if a patient was screened with FOBT at month 1 and then subsequently had a colonoscopy during month 8, the cost of both tests was counted in the 9-month analysis. We made no attempt to discern the clinical rationale for a given screening test (eg, a screening vs a diagnostic colonoscopy); rather, we conservatively included all tests for both outcomes and costs. Usual care patients may have gotten their screening advice at an office visit, but we assumed CRC screening advice was unlikely to be the chief reason for the visit, so we did not attempt to include those costs. Any resulting bias from that decision would make usual care appear less costly.

Clinical Trial Findings

In the clinical trial, the mean age in both groups was about 60 years, with an even female/male split. There were 2943 patients in the intervention group, and 2962 patients in the usual care group. In the intervention group, 22.5% completed FOBT within 6 months, compared with 16.0% in the usual care group. Screening by any method was completed for 23.9% in the intervention versus 17.6% in the usual care group. In the intervention group, 2943 (100%) received the initial call type 1 (general reminder), 2406 (81.8%) received a second type 1 call, and 1632 (55.5%) received a total of 3 calls of type 1. Call type 2 (FOBT return reminder) was made to 18.3% of the intervention group.

Statistical Analysis

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