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Improving colon cancer screening rates in primary care: a pilot study emphasising the role of the medical assistant
  1. A N Baker1,
  2. M Parsons2,
  3. S M Donnelly1,
  4. L Johnson1,
  5. J Day2,
  6. A Mervis2,
  7. B James3,
  8. R Burt4,
  9. M K Magill2
  1. 1
    HealthInsight, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
  2. 2
    University of Utah, Community Clinics, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
  3. 3
    Intermountain Health Care, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
  4. 4
    University of Utah, Huntsman Cancer Institute, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr M K Magill, Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Utah, 375 Chipeta Way, Suite A, Salt Lake City, UT 84108, USA; michael.magill{at}


Background: Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third-leading cause of cancer death for both men and women in the USA. Despite consensus recommendations for screening, just over half of eligible adults nationally have undergone screening. We therefore implemented a programme to improve the rate of CRC screening.

Methods: This study was conducted in the Utah Health Research Network and the University of Utah Community Clinics, a 100 000 patient, seven-practice, university-owned system offering primary and secondary care and ancillary services including endoscopy. We focused on patients aged ⩾50 who were seen between 1 January 2003 and 31 October 2006, and who were not current for CRC screening at the time of the visit. The study included a three-phase intervention: electronic medical record (EMR) reminders, physician and medical assistant (MA) education about CRC screening guidelines, and redesign of patient visit workflow with an expanded role for MAs to review patients’ CRC screening status and recommend testing when appropriate. With patient agreement, the MA entered a preliminary order in the EMR, and the physician confirmed or rejected the order. The primary outcome measure was the rate of screening colonoscopy ordered for eligible patients.

Results: The baseline colonoscopy referral rate was 6.0%. Provider education and electronic reminders had minimal immediate impact on screening rates. Addition of the expanded MA role was associated with a sustained increase in colonoscopy referral order rate to 13.4%, a relative improvement of 123%.

Conclusions: The MA can play a key role in improving CRC screening rates as part of a redesigned system of primary care.

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  • Funding This research was supported, in part, by grant number 1 R21 CA107216-01A1 from the National Cancer Institute.

  • Competing interests None.