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College of Arts and Sciences

UofSC and health care providers unite to increase colon cancer screenings

$3.6 million CDC award will boost cancer prevention efforts

By Bryan Gentry | July 23, 2020

Screening for colorectal cancer prevents disease and saves lives. However, in some regions of South Carolina, as many as 90 percent of people who should be screened aren’t, primarily due to cost, availability and lack of awareness. Such low screening rates have made colorectal cancer the second leading cause of cancer death in the state, affecting Black and Latino communities most heavily. 

The University of South Carolina’s Colorectal Cancer Prevention Network (CCPN) hopes to change this by helping health care providers increase their screening rates through improved referral practices at 30 clinics in 15 counties of South Carolina. To boost the CCPN in this effort, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently awarded the network $3.6 million for a five-year project.

“Colorectal cancer is highly preventable with time-based screening, but a high proportion of people are unscreened,” says Annie Thibault, executive director of CCPN, which is located within UofSC’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Our goal is to work with providers to change their processes and maximize their referrals to screening. We want to make sure that there are no gaps in care.”

Now more than ever, we’re working hard to ensure all South Carolinians receive adequate and timely care by primarily servicing our most racially diverse areas in both urban and rural communities.

― Annie Thibault, CCPN executive director

Founded in 2008, the CCPN works to reduce colorectal cancer incidence and deaths through programs that increase awareness and provide free screenings to people in need. Thanks to a $1 million annual allocation from the South Carolina General Assembly, as well as grants from private foundations, the program has provided screening services to several thousand South Carolina residents over the past decade. Its partnerships with researchers, health care providers, and professional organizations throughout the state have created a unified, statewide effort to overcome the barriers to effective cancer prevention.

The network also works with health care providers to share and disseminate evidence-based interventions that make it more likely that their patients will get timely screening. Thibault says minor changes ―such as electronic health records that prompt doctors to recommend screening, or follow-up text messages reminding patients to schedule an appointment ― can make a big difference.

The new CDC award, which is formally a cooperative agreement, will support the CCPN’s efforts to help clinics implement these referral practices and increase colorectal cancer screening rates. Collaborating with partners that include the American Cancer Society, the South Carolina Primary Healthcare Association, and UofSC’s Arnold School of Public Health, the CCPN will create a peer-to-peer network among clinics in some of South Carolina’s most medically underserved communities. Participating clinics will review existing policies and procedures related to colorectal cancer screening referrals, identify needed changes, design and implement new practices, and track outcomes. Also, uninsured patients will receive information on free colorectal cancer screening available to them through the CCPN’s partnerships with gastroenterologists.

This program will be implemented in 15 counties, including Horry, Georgetown, Marion, Williamsburg, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester, Dillon, Richland, Lexington, Newberry, Fairfield, Anderson, and Pickens. Healthcare organizations partnering with the CCPN in this effort will include Cooperative Health Center, Fetter Health Care Network, Foothills Community Health Care, Little River Medical Center and Anmed Health. In each of these sites, fewer than 60 percent of people age 50 to 75 are up-to-date with screening, Thibault says. Statewide, about 70 percent of individuals in that age range are up-to-date. The goal is 80 percent.

The program launch comes at a crucial time for cancer care in South Carolina and the nation. In March alone, the United States experienced a significant 86% drop in colorectal cancer screenings as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, the pandemic has highlighted healthcare disparities that affect minorities and residents of rural communities served by the CCPN.

The CCPN is one of only 35 organizations nationally to receive the new award from the CDC. Thibault says the federal funding signals national confidence in CCPN’s program, while ongoing state funding helps to address urgent needs.

The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) has been a strong partner to the CCPN in advocating for the annual state funding. “We know the best screening test is the one that actually gets done,” noted ACS CAN Government Relations Director Beth Johnson. “We’re proud to see the CCPN receive the recognition they deserve and excited to see them continue to have an impact in communities across the state, especially in light of the disruptions caused by COVID-19.”

“We are extremely grateful to have been selected for this prestigious award, thanks to the tireless efforts of our entire team and the work by ACS CAN,” Thibault says. “Utilizing state funds and the new CDC award, we’re proud to be expanding our work to better address the impact of colorectal cancer in our state with a focus on addressing disparities and the impact that rurality plays on screening rates. Now more than ever, we’re working hard to ensure all South Carolinians receive adequate and timely care by primarily servicing our most racially diverse areas in both urban and rural communities.”

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