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BMC Provides Free Colonoscopies as Part of State Pilot Program
March 25, 2009



PITTSFIELD, MA - Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death among Massachusetts residents. With proper screening, many deaths can be prevented, yet only half of the people who need colorectal cancer screening get screened. To bridge that gap, Berkshire Medical Center and eight other Massachusetts hospitals provided colonoscopies at no charge to pre-qualified and selected patients on March 21st as part of the first state-wide colonoscopy event.

BMC was the only participating hospital in Western Massachusetts, and provided free colonoscopies to five patients. Several physicians, BMC nurses and technicians from the Endoscopy Unit, BMC staff, and employees of the Community Health Programs volunteered their time and expertise for the program.

Participating physicians included: Ira Schmelkin, MD, Division Chief of Gastroenterology at BMC, Timothy Counihan, MD, Chairman, Department of Surgery, Robert Fanelli, MD, Arthur Wasser, MD, Rangan Murali, MD, Marcella Bradway, MD, and Thomas Dunzendorfer, MD.

The American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) Institute and the New England Division of the American Cancer Society hosted the first Massachusetts Free Colonoscopy Pilot program to help educate patients about the importance of colorectal cancer screening and to encourage all individuals over age 50 to undergo this important life-saving test. This is the only multi-hospital screening program around the country.

“The AGA Institute firmly believes that all Americans should have access to lifesaving colorectal cancer screenings,” said Carla Ginsburg, MD, MPH, AGAF, councilor of the AGA Institute. “The AGA is pleased to be working with the American Cancer Society to ensure patients have access to colorectal cancer screenings and to encourage all patients over age 50 to talk with their doctor about colorectal cancer screening. We also appreciate the support we have received from the Massachusetts Department of Health.”

Individuals who do not have health insurance are less likely to undergo preventive screening for colorectal cancer. Therefore, these individuals have a higher death rate due to more advanced disease at diagnosis.

This event was designed to increase awareness of the need for colorectal cancer screening and provided free screening for some individuals who could not otherwise afford this vital test. More than 30 gastroenterologists at the nine hospitals participated in the event.

Janet McGrail Spillane, Massachusetts Vice President of Health Initiatives for the American Cancer Society said, “Colon cancer testing helps us actually prevent cancer from occurring, when we find polyps and have them removed. Although it is the third most common cause of cancer death in both men and women in America, it is preventable, treatable, and beatable.”

The Massachusetts Free Colonoscopy Pilot program, held on March 21st, was a small screening pilot conducted with the assistance of the Department of Public Health Women’s Health Network (WHN) and Men’s Health Partnership (MHP). Through this partnership, the organizations provided a broad based screening event targeting low income uninsured adults age 50 and over. The WHN and MHP provided the infrastructure that enabled a screening pilot that was implemented and evaluated in such a short time frame. Patients were selected through the WHN and MHP programs. Unfortunately, it was beyond the capacity of this program to accept patients for colonoscopy who were not referred by the Department of Public Health.

“We are very pleased that so many hospitals were willing to participate in this important event. It is so important that people over 50 get screened regularly, and we do not want cost to deter anyone from receiving this service,” said Jewel Mullen, MD, MPH, MPA, Director of the Bureau of Community Health Access and Promotion, MA Department of Public Health. “We hope that this can become an annual event.”

About Colorectal Cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the U.S. and is the third leading cause of cancer death for men and women. Colon cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable. It can be prevented by finding and removing polyps before they become cancerous and is highly treatable if found in its early stages.

In Massachusetts, an estimated 3,560 new cases of colorectal cancer were diagnosed in 2008 and an estimated 1,100 individuals died of the disease. It is estimated nationally, that half of all deaths due to colon cancer could be prevented if everyone age 50 and over got screened.

Fortunately, statewide, Massachusetts is doing slightly better than the U.S. in screening and outcomes, and the screening rates have been steadily increasing. In addition to this pilot project, Massachusetts is focusing on Hispanic and black non-Hispanic men who have been found to be diagnosed at a later stage of disease when the opportunity for healthier outcomes decreases. Despite all efforts it is important to insure that everyone has the appropriate information and access to life-saving screening in a timely fashion.

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