It doesn’t take a moonshot: The simple thing we can do to increase cancer screening rates now 

The way to diagnose cancer earlier is simple, and one that our healthcare system is already equipped to do: Make it easy for people to get regularly screened.
Clinical Policy Perspectives

This article, written by Hilary Hatch, Chief Clinical Officer at Phreesia, originally appeared on LinkedIn on Feb. 20, 2024. It has been lightly edited and republished here with permission.  

At Phreesia, we take great pride in directing patients toward a wide range of cancer screenings—as well as diagnostic and treatment options—at a critical moment in their healthcare journey. We firmly believe in the power of regular screenings, and we’re committed to supporting and accelerating the national effort to end cancer. 

When I was 31, I lost my mother to breast cancer.  

I wish I could say my family was in a small minority. But in fact, cancer kills almost 1,700 Americans each day. Almost all Americans have experienced a loss related to cancer or supported a friend or family member in their cancer journey. Billions of dollars and countless hours are being devoted to scientific research for breakthrough treatments through the government’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, among other efforts. But as we wait for a miracle cure, there is more we can do with tools we already have. 

The truth is that many cancer deaths could be prevented if more people were up to date on their cancer screenings. But an alarming number of Americans—2 in 5 adults—don’t even know they need to be screened.  

Why? Because our healthcare system has made it needlessly complicated.  

Many cancers, if caught early, can be treated so that people are more likely to survive and have a better quality of life than when they undergo the debilitating and costly treatment for advanced cancers. My mother lived with cancer for 25 years, but many of those years were filled with doctor’s appointments, surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. 

Even today, I still wonder if my mother could have lived longer—or at least more fully—if her cancer was caught sooner. 

The way to diagnose cancer earlier is often simple, and one that our healthcare system is already equipped to do: Make it easier for people to get regularly screened. 

Doctors are expected to remind patients about required screenings, because instead of engaging patients in their own care, our systems are designed to make them passive. We place all the power in the medical establishment, when in fact we should educate patients and give them the resources they need to self-manage their health.  

This is unfair. It’s patronizing to patients, and it’s totally unrealistic for doctors. One study found that primary care providers would need 27 hours per day to give each patient comprehensive preventive care. 

And it’s not necessary. Many guidelines are simple. 

What if digital tools could do the part of the job related to preventive screenings, freeing up providers to deal with more complicated and pressing issues? 

Phreesia has already developed the cancer moonshot we need: Early detection through tailored initiatives and education campaigns that encourage patients to get the cancer screenings they need. 

During 1 in 10 medical visits across the U.S.—more than 150 million visits each year—patients interact with Phreesia’s platform in a way that is optimal for encouraging preventive care. Phreesia makes direct, meaningful contact with patients when their healthcare is already top of mind, like when they’re in the waiting room before a doctor’s appointment. 

Behavioral economics tells us that when information is presented in an optimal way, it can “nudge” people to make better decisions. By clearly presenting information to patients at the point of care—and by giving them an easy way to request an appointment—Phreesia simplifies the decision-making process and helps people take action on cancer screenings.  

This drives screening rates up. 

Don’t just take my word for it. Phreesia has repeatedly seen that more people get screened after they see early-detection campaigns before and between visits. 

Take breast cancer, which is the most prevalent type of cancer in the world. More than 1 in 3 patients age 40 and over are not getting regular mammograms. But in just 10 days, Phreesia reached 268,000 patients with one breast cancer awareness campaign. Of those patients, 72% said they were likely to talk to their doctor about breast cancer risk factors after seeing the campaign. This is especially important post-COVID, when so many people missed cancer screenings and other preventive care. 

Or take colorectal cancer, which disproportionately impacts people of color. If their screening rate was the same as that for white people, 20% of deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented. In a Phreesia colorectal cancer screening effort, Black/African American patient groups engaged with a campaign at a noticeably higher rate than other racial groups, suggesting an opportunity to reduce disparities simply by making information easily accessible to all patients. 

As things currently stand, we’re asking patients and providers to roll the ball uphill on cancer screening. It doesn’t have to be this way. Behavioral economists call it “choice architecture.” We can design systems so that the optimal choice—in this case, to get a screening when due—is the easiest to make. The ball rolls downhill. 

If more healthcare organizations used simple digital tools like Phreesia’s and communicated clearly and directly to patients, we’d make it easier for people to get diagnosed and treated early for cancer.  

As we pursue new treatments to end cancer altogether, we shouldn’t sleep on the moonshot we already have. 

Learn more about how Phreesia supports cancer prevention.