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iPad App May Help Make Colon Cancer Screenings More Accessible

March 13, 2018

AUSTIN, Texas — An iPad app teaching patients about colon cancer screening options may help boost screening rates, according to new research co-authored by a researcher at Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.

The randomized controlled study, published in Annals of Internal Medicine, followed 450 people seeking primary care who were due for colon cancer screening. They were either given the iPad app or usual methods for patient education, including diet and exercise. People who used the app were twice as likely to undergo screening compared with the other group.

“It’s important to find effective ways to help people understand the importance of colorectal cancer screening and to motivate them to actually get screened,” said Michael Pignone, M.D., MPH, chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine at Dell Medical School. “An everyday digital tool like an iPad app can be a cost-effective, simple way to inform people about their choices and show them how easy it is to sign up and get tested,” Pignone said.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. and the third most common cancer in men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Because it can take many years for a precancerous polyp to change into cancer, finding these early growths means you can actually prevent colorectal cancer,” said Pignone. “But the key is getting people screened, and that’s where our biggest challenge lies. Nationally, about one-third of adults ages 50 to 75 are not up to date with screening. Those adults with lower income or who lack health insurance are even more likely to be unscreened,” Pignone said.

How the App Works

The app works by educating patients about their need for colorectal cancer screening, describing the various screening options, letting them choose the type of screening, helping communicate their wishes to their providers, and then sending them prompts on their own personal devices to help them complete the test.

About 30 percent of patients receiving education through the app underwent screening, compared with only 15 percent from the traditional education group. All patients had already agreed to participate in the study at the outset.

Dell Med Continues Efforts to Boost Community Colon Cancer Screening

This new research is part of Dell Medical School’s efforts to increase colorectal cancer screenings – both in the Austin area and throughout the nation. Here in Austin, Dell Med has focused on those with limited or no health insurance. Only about 35 percent of Travis County residents with limited or no insurance are up to date on screenings.

In September 2017, Pignone’s team received a $2.3 million, three-year grant from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas to target 13,000 Travis County residents who receive care at CommUnity Care, Central Texas’ largest network of Federally Qualified Health Centers. Efforts are currently underway to mail one form of screening, fecal immunochemical tests, to patients. Recipients can return their samples via mail to be analyzed for free. The tests identify tiny amounts of blood in the stool that can be an early sign of colon cancer.

The project provides follow-up with patient navigators who will contact people with positive test results to help them get colonoscopies to detect and remove precancerous polyps or early-stage cancers.

Know Your Colon Cancer Screening Basics

Understanding who should get screened for colon cancer, when and how can save lives.

The American Cancer Society says men and women at average risk for colorectal cancer should start getting screening tests at age 50. There are several ways to be screened, including:

  • Fecal immunochemical test (every year)
  • Stool DNA test (every 3 years)
  • Colonoscopy (every 10 years)
  • CT colonography (every 5 years)
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy (every 5 years)
  • Double-contrast barium enema (every 5 years)

Certain people at higher risk for colorectal cancer may need to be screened before age 50 or more frequently than others. These factors put you at higher risk:

  • Personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps
  • Personal history of inflammatory bowel disease
  • Strong family history of colorectal cancer or polyps
  • Known family history of an inherited form of colorectal cancer syndrome

Talk to your doctor if you think you may be at higher risk for colorectal cancer.