Recognizing National Cancer Prevention Month: Dos and Don’ts to Help Your Patients Embrace Preventive Health

February is National Cancer Prevention Month. It marks a special time of year when people come together to spread awareness about prevention strategies to reduce avoidable cancers.

It’s well researched that healthy lifestyle choices and early detection screening can significantly reduce the risk of cancer. You know this, as do your colleagues, and most likely many of your patients do too. But this begs the question – if most of us already know this, then why do we still smoke, eat unhealthy foods, skip the gym, opt to not use sunblock, and eschew our annual screenings?

The answer, of course, is not so simple. Social determinants of health, mental illness, physical disability, insurance coverage limitations, and so many other factors can get in the way of people taking recommended measures to mitigate the risk, as well as exacerbation, of cancer.

Putting all of these incredibly important considerations aside for a moment, for some of us, it comes down to the fact that we do not value our own health the same way we do other things in our lives. One day it might be work, the next family, and another day the cat, that’s competing for our full attention. But all too often, remembering to schedule an annual wellness visit or sign up for a gym membership gets buried in that ever-growing list of to-dos.

While all the things that people juggle on a daily basis are not going away, healthcare providers can certainly play a more proactive role in helping patients to remember to love thyself and take the recommended steps toward leading healthier lives. Presented below are some dos and don’ts for providers to consider to help patients reduce the risk of cancer.

Do: Take Every Opportunity to Talk About Prevention

There’s never a wrong time or place to speak with patients about preventive measures they can take to avoid cancer. In fact, clinicians across care settings have a responsibility to educate patients about the benefits of prevention and early detection, and should proactively seize opportunities to talk about these issues when they have patients in the exam room.

Primary care providers are on the front lines of healthcare and should always be digging into patient records to uncover preventive gaps or lifestyle improvement areas, no matter the original reason for the visit. Secondary care can also play a part. Research has shown that patients who come in for one preventive service will likely be receptive to others. Specialists can probe patients and quickly make referrals if they indicate that they are open to other types of screenings or tests.

Don’t: Shame Patients

Unhealthy habits are notoriously difficult to break. For patients to truly change these behaviors, it requires a certain level of intrinsic motivation, and that drive will most likely not come from clinicians making patients feel guilty about their lifestyle choices. According to one study, nearly half of patients who felt shamed by their provider were more likely to not be entirely honest with them in the future, avoid them, or switch doctors all together.

While it’s certainly within the healthcare provider’s purview to offer their clinical expertise, patients may not be as receptive to dialogue that could be perceived as condescending. To encourage healthy behavior, it’s more effective for clinicians to be educators and offer positive reinforcement when patients indicate that they are engaging in healthier habits.

Do: Remind Patients When They’re Due for Screenings

Going in for routine cancer screenings can increase the likelihood of early detection and subsequently increase survival rates. However, Americans are utilizing preventive services at about half the recommended rate and it’s a challenge to get patients to come in for these tests for a variety of reasons, including uncertainty about where to go to schedule these tests, forgetfulness, and misconceptions about their insurance plans.

Sometimes a simple intervention to remind patients of when they’re due for screenings or to educate about the benefits of early detection can go a long way in helping to save lives.

For example, California-based UCSF Health sought to reach more patients and increase colorectal, cervical, and breast cancer screening rates across its primary care population. To achieve this goal, the academic medical center partnered with CipherHealth to conduct high-touch preventive cancer outreach by leveraging automated reminders. Over a six month period, UCSF saw a threefold increase in cancer screenings completed, showing that even an automated call can have a major influence on the healthy steps patients take.

Don’t: Overdo It

While frequent dialogues about prevention and friendly reminders to schedule screenings are effective strategies to help patients ward off cancer, there’s a fine line between being helpful and a bother. Respecting your patients’ privacy, objections to screening (i.e., negative effects associated with false-positives), and preferred methods of communication are equally important and can play a role in driving outcomes. Rather than trying to force patients to do something, help them understand why they should value their own health.

If you’re interested in learning about evidence-based strategies to promote prevention and reduce the risk of cancer, check out some of the great resources offered by the American Institute of Cancer Research.

Ben Kraus, Market Manager, is based in CipherHealth's headquarters in New York City. He focuses on issues concerning ambulatory care and alternative payment models, and has a special interest in how technology can spur the shift from volume to value in healthcare and enhance care coordination. In the wee hours of night, you just might find Ben jamming on stage with his bass guitar in one of the many music venues throughout the five boroughs.