Reminders Help Patients Get Better Care

MONDAY Feb. 23, 2009 -- A little information and guidance can prompt patients to play a much greater role in improving their own health care, a new study focused on colon cancer screening suggests.

The 15-month Harvard study included 21,860 patients, ages 50 to 80, who were overdue for colorectal cancer screenings.

One group of patients received the usual care. A second group received a mailed, personalized letter outlining their history of colon cancer screening exams, information about colon cancer, a fecal occult blood test kit, and instructions for scheduling either a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy.

The study found that 44 percent of patients in the second group got screened for colorectal cancer, compared with 38 percent of those in the first group. The older they were, the more likely patients in the second group were to get screened -- among those ages 70 to 80, screening rates increased from 37 percent to 47 percent.

The study also included 110 primary care doctors. Some were selected to receive electronic reminders that their patients were overdue for colorectal cancer screening. Overall, 42 percent of patients whose doctors received the electronic reminders got screened, compared to 40 percent of patients whose doctors didn't get reminders.

This negligible difference may be due to the fact that up to one third of patients didn't visit their primary care doctor during the study, said the researchers.

Among patients who saw their doctor frequently, screening rates were 60 percent for those whose doctors received reminders and 52 percent for those whose doctors didn't get reminders.

The study appears in the Feb. 23 issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

"We had a large group of people who needed to be screened for a very important condition. If we provided them with basic information about colon cancer and their need for screening, this approach was more effective than simply leaving it all up to the doctor," study co-author John Ayanian, a professor of medicine and health care policy at Harvard Medical School, said in a news release.

The findings show "that patients can take a more active role in their health care. We often don't give enough credit to patients for their ability to own their own health care. But here's some evidence that patients can better manage their health care if we arm them with the right information," study co-author Thomas Sequist, an assistant professor of medicine and of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital, said in the release.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians outlines measures patients can take to protect their health.

Posted: February 2009


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