Contributor: Don’t Delay—Why Now Is the Time to Reengage Patients in Routine Cancer Screenings

Ignoring life-threatening, non–COVID-19 conditions for too long can turn one health crisis into another. Now is the time to resume cancer screenings, like mammograms and colonoscopies, because early detection can be lifesaving.

A new patient engagement crisis is emerging nationwide. According to the Epic Health Research Network, routine cancer screenings decreased significantly throughout the United States from January to April 2020 due to elective procedures being delayed. During the height of the pandemic, breast cancer screening, for example, was considered an elective procedure so many mammograms were postponed or canceled. In fact, Epic noted that screenings specifically for breast and cervical cancers dropped by 94%, and colon cancer screenings dropped by 86%. If health systems don't address this new crisis, the rate of cancer deaths will likely see a major upswing.

National Cancer Institute Director Ned Sharpless, MD, hypothesized, “The pandemic could reverse the US streak in improved cancer mortality that has lasted more than 25 years.” As a result, health systems and providers need to use every possible tool in their arsenals to encourage screening and treatment for patients who may have delayed (and continue to delay) preventive and routine care. Luckily, there are a variety of patient engagement strategies that will help reengage patients.

Implement Targeted Outreach Campaigns

Hospitals and health systems can customize their communication efforts to ensure that all patients who qualify for screenings of various cancers are contacted via the channel that initiates activation. They should consider grading patients into risk categories and tailoring their communication plan to those risk strategies. The CDC, for example, suggests that certain patients should obtain earlier or increased screening, including:

  • Patients who have had, or have a close relative who has had, colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer.
  • Those who have an inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn disease or ulcerative colitis.
  • People who have a genetic syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, otherwise known as Lynch syndrome.

Patients may need a reminder of cancer screenings’ lifesaving impact. For example, consider creating a colorectal outreach campaign where you send an email, text, or phone call to all patients 45 years and older who are due for a routine colonoscopy. Patients want to feel that their trusted providers are invested in their health and well-being and are knowledgeable about the latest screening guidelines.

In addition to a customized communication approach to induce action, consider using another valuable tool for engaging patients: social media. A health system can create a targeted social media campaign that reminds patients to schedule annual wellness visits and screenings, therefore reducing their risk of a missed detection. Promote cancer awareness months throughout the year, like Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October or Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March, to resonate with patients while these topics are top of mind. Patients are more likely to schedule a screening if they are reminded in various ways of the importance of making (and keeping) their appointments.

Enable Various Scheduling Options

By providing a variety of convenient options for scheduling an appointment, patients will feel that the task of coordinating the screening is efficient rather than a time-consuming endeavor. Enable patients to seamlessly convert at their moment of intent by providing online scheduling for appointments. Furthermore, health systems can also utilize patient experience experts to help patients schedule their screening appointments over the phone. Once a screening is scheduled, it’s very important that personalized appointment reminders are distributed via text message, email, or phone. This will help reduce no-show rates and cancellations. After a patient completes their screening, proactively schedule any necessary follow-up appointments before he or she leaves the building—you can even do so by electronically sending scheduling links in real time.

Develop Offerings for Patients to Maintain Their Health Year Round

In an effort to encourage a healthier lifestyle for patients and increase health literacy, health systems should offer frequent nutritional, physical activity, or educational courses. Ensure patients are able to easily self-register and pay online. Maximize class and event attendance by providing the option to participate virtually or in person and sending multichannel reminders. Furthermore, if relevant, provide key takeaways for patients to consider post event that ensure their learnings are applied moving forward, like at-home workouts or one-pan healthy recipes. Prioritizing one’s health is of the utmost importance, especially during a pandemic. A healthy lifestyle can reduce a patient’s cancer risk significantly.

While the COVID-19 pandemic and exposure to the virus are still top of mind, further delaying preventive services may present a larger medical concern as diseases and conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer can go undiagnosed, unmonitored, and untreated. Research indicates that the number of people who will die from breast or colorectal cancer in the United States. will increase by nearly 10,000 over the next decade because of COVID-19's impact on oncology care. Ignoring life-threatening, non–COVID-19 conditions for too long can turn one health crisis into another. Now is the time to resume cancer screenings, like mammograms and colonoscopies, because early detection can be lifesaving.