Colorectal cancer harms minorities at a higher rate — but CMS can help

Colorectal cancer harms minorities at a higher rate — but CMS can help
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As we mark the end of National Minority Health Month, we must continue to highlight the health disparities that affect minority communities year-round. One disease that takes a disproportionate toll on African-Americans and Latinos is colorectal cancer.

Minority communities have a higher rate of colorectal cancer and diagnosis at a later stage than Caucasian communities. Currently, both Latinos and African Americans are less likely to be screened for colorectal cancer. Only 45 percent of Hispanics and 57 percent of African Americans receive preventive screening tests, compared to 61 percent of Caucasians.

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As a radiologist and in my role on the American College of Radiology’s Colon Cancer Committee, I have seen firsthand the impact colorectal cancer has on patients. Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. One way to increase screening rates for colorectal cancer is to increase access to preventive care — specifically, virtual colonoscopies.

Virtual colonoscopies, known medically as computed tomography colonography (CTC), are highly accurate, safe and noninvasive, which makes them an attractive option for both patients and clinicians. Virtual colonoscopy is less expensive than traditional colonoscopy and is a recommended screening exam by both the American Cancer Society and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force for those at average risk for the disease.

Virtual colonoscopies are covered by private insurance; however, they are not currently covered by Medicare even though the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has the ability to expand coverage.

Without Medicare coverage, many seniors — especially in minority communities — will not be able to access these life-saving screenings. Reps. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) have taken the lead in Congress to change this by introducing H.R. 1969 recently, which would expand Medicare coverage to virtual colonoscopies.

More people will get screened if they can access screening options that are easier to complete. As a board-certified radiologist who has been working with virtual colonoscopies since their inception, I have seen the difference they can make to incentivize people to get screened.

With that in mind, the goal of CTC is to reduce the number of people — currently 23 million — not being screened for colorectal cancer across the country each year. My patients are significantly more at ease during these screenings than traditional colonoscopies.

It is important to remember that virtual colonoscopies offer preventive care as an outpatient procedure and patients can immediately go back to their daily activities afterwards. They require no anesthesia or recovery time, which makes it significantly more likely someone will follow screening guidelines and get tested.

CMS and Congress need to recognize that virtual colonoscopies are an important tool in the fight against colorectal cancer that claims 51,020 lives a year, disproportionately harming minority communities. This tool is now an established and vital preventive care option.

As medical technology advances, so should health-care coverage. With all the current debate around health-care in Washington, this is a bipartisan issue with a simple solution. The radiology community looks forward to working with members of Congress to build support for H.R. 1969. By creating better access to preventive screenings through Medicare coverage, we will improve health outcomes for Americans.

Cecelia Brewington, M.D. is a board-certified practicing radiologist who is a recognized expert in three-dimensional medical imaging — with a focus on lung and colorectal cancer care. She serves on the ACR Colon Cancer Committee.