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Panel calls for reducing colorectal cancer deaths by striking down barriers to screening

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.

Despite evidence and guidelines supporting the value of screening for this disease, rates of screening for colorectal cancer are consistently lower than those for other types of cancer, particularly breast and cervical. Although the screening rates in the target population of adults over age 50, have increased from 20-30 percent in 1997 to nearly 55 percent in 2008 — the rates are still too low.

An NIH state-of-the-science panel was convened this week to identify ways to further increase the use and quality of colorectal cancer screening in the United States.

"We recognize that some may find colorectal cancer screening tests to be unpleasant and time-consuming. However, we also know that recommended screening strategies reduce colorectal cancer deaths," said Dr. Donald Steinwachs, panel chair, and professor and director of the Health Services Research and Development Center at the Johns Hopkins University. "We need to find ways to encourage more people to get these important tests."

The panel found that the most important factors associated with being screened are having insurance coverage and access to a regular health care provider. Their recommendations highlighted the need to remove out-of-pocket costs for screening tests.

Given the variety of tests available, the panel emphasized that informed decisions incorporating personal preferences may help reluctant individuals determine which test's combined attributes — invasiveness, frequency, and required preparation — are preferable to them, helping them identify and obtain the most palatable test. For example, an individual may choose a more invasive test requiring less frequent follow-up or a less invasive test requiring more frequent follow-up.

Noting differences in screening rates across racial and ethnic groups, socioeconomic status, and geographic location, the panel emphasized the need for targeted strategies for specific subgroups. Compared with non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics are less likely to be screened.

The panel also noted that if efforts to increase utilization are successful, there will be a greater demand for colorectal cancer screening services. Available capacity involves not only facilities and appropriately trained providers, but also support for informed decision making, resources to coordinate screening services and communicate results effectively, and enhanced monitoring practices to ensure that positive results are followed up with colonoscopy. Depending on the scale of increases in screening rates, there may be a need to increase local and national capacity.

In addition to increasing first-time screening rates, the panel also identified the need to ensure that individuals return for subsequent testing at the recommended intervals. A variety of colorectal cancer screening tests are available and different guidelines recommend them at different intervals. A summary of these is available in the panel's draft statement at

An updated version of the panel's draft state-of-the-science statement, which incorporates comments received during this morning's public session, will be posted later today at

The conference was sponsored by the NIH Office of Medical Applications of Research and the National Cancer Institute along with other NIH and Department of Health and Human Services components. This conference was conducted under the NIH Consensus Development Program, which convenes conferences to assess the available scientific evidence and develop objective statements on controversial medical issues.

The 13–member conference panel included experts in the fields of cancer surveillance, health services research, community-based research, informed decision-making, access to care, health care policy, health communication, health economics, health disparities, epidemiology, statistics, thoracic radiology, internal medicine, gastroenterology, public health, end-of-life care, and a public representative. A complete listing of the panel members and their institutional affiliations is included in the draft conference statement. Additional materials, including panel bios, photos, and other related resources, are available at Interviews with panel members can be arranged by contacting Kelli Marciel at 301-496-4819 or

In addition to the material presented at the conference by speakers and the comments of conference participants presented during discussion periods, the panel considered pertinent research from the published literature and the results of a systematic review of the literature. The systematic review was prepared through the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Evidence-based Practice Centers (EPC) program, by the RTI International-University of the North Carolina Evidence-based Practice Center. The EPCs develop evidence reports and technology assessments based on rigorous, comprehensive syntheses and analyses of the scientific literature, emphasizing explicit and detailed documentation of methods, rationale, and assumptions. The evidence report on enhancing use and quality of colorectal cancer screening is available at

The panel's statement is an independent report and is not a policy statement of the NIH or the federal government. The NIH Consensus Development Program was established in 1977 as a mechanism to judge controversial topics in medicine and public health in an unbiased, impartial manner. NIH has conducted 119 consensus development conferences, and 33 state-of-the-science (formerly "technology assessment") conferences, addressing a wide range of issues. A backgrounder on the NIH Consensus Development Program process is available at

The Office of the Director, the central office at NIH, is responsible for setting policy for NIH, which includes 27 Institutes and Centers. This involves planning, managing, and coordinating the programs and activities of all NIH components. The Office of the Director also includes program offices which are responsible for stimulating specific areas of research throughout NIH. Additional information is available at

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

Kelli Marciel | EurekAlert!
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