Researchers Mobilize at Hospital’s “Front Door” to Expand Cancer Screenings

Oct. 19, 2021

To find people who are behind on cancer screenings and then motivate them to follow through, an innovative team is leveraging the emergency department at Strong Memorial Hospital and other regional UR Medicine sites for a research project.

The project is especially important for the Rochester area, where cancer rates are higher than in New York state and nationally. According to data from the University of Rochester’s Wilmot Cancer Institute, if the 27-county region from which Wilmot draws patients were its own state, it would have the second highest cancer incidence in the U.S. behind Kentucky.   

The researchers’ goal is to identify participants for studies that evaluate whether a text-message reminder tool is more effective than a standard referral for prompting individuals to get screened for cancer. Researchers are directing their attention to underserved people who visit the emergency room for any type of illness, using the wait time as an opportunity for education about cancer screenings.

In 2020, the same research team started its National Cancer Institute-funded project by identifying urban and rural women who were in need of screening for cervical cancer, a preventable disease. At the time, researchers said they planned to expand their project — and this year they’ve included colon and lung cancer, two common malignancies for which screening can improve survival.

Why the emergency department?

Head shot of David Adler, M.D.
David Adler, M.D.

“The ER takes care of people from all walks of life, from the most fortunate to the least,” said David Adler, M.D., M.P.H., professor of Emergency Medicine and Public Health Sciences at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and a Wilmot Cancer Institute investigator who co-leads the projects.

“It’s a place to reach the uninsured, the underinsured, and people who generally have little or no access to health care, including people of color, recent immigrants, and those with language barriers,” he said.

Co-investigator Beau Abar, Ph.D., noted that the emergency department is a hospital’s “front door,” as more than 70 percent of patients needing inpatient hospital care come through the emergency room.

“Our project is also timely, given that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in dramatic increases in missed cancer screenings,” said Abar, an associate professor of Emergency Medicine, Public Health Sciences, and Psychiatry.

Routine cancer screening

Adhering to scientific guidelines for cancer screening can lead to early detection of the disease, making it more treatable. Receiving accurate information from health care providers can also ease fears and debunk myths.

For example, Abar said, a colonoscopy is not the only way to screen for colorectal cancer. Other options include the less invasive sigmoidoscopy or annual stool tests. It’s important that individuals find the best option by consulting a physician.

  • The colon cancer study involves referring qualified individuals to a physician to coordinate the screening test and sending text messages to encourage follow-up.
  • The lung cancer screening study is similar: researchers engage people who are eligible for a low-dose CT scan to screen for lung cancer and then will evaluate which method works best to encourage patients to complete the process. Through UR Medicine’s Lung Cancer Screening Program, patients can get screened in Rochester and in the region, including Brockport, Canandaigua, Dansville, and Hornell.
  • Early data from the cervical cancer study show that the percentage of women who lack adequate screening is higher in the Rochester region than national averages, demonstrating a great need for cancer prevention services, education, and research, Adler said. Most cases of cervical cancer and related deaths occur in women who have not been screened with routine pap tests.

Adler, Abar, and their team recently received a University of Rochester Research Award to gather pilot data for colon screening and a URMFG Healthcare Innovation two-year pilot award for the lung cancer study. Nancy Wood, M.P.A., M.S., is the project manager. The team collaborates with Wilmot’s Cancer Prevention and Control research program and its Community Outreach and Engagement office.

Screening for Colon Cancer

  • Colon cancer is becoming more common and deadly. It is the third most common cancer in the U.S., and the third leading cause of cancer deaths.
  • Colon cancer almost always develops from pre-cancerous colorectal polyps, which, in many cases, can be detected and removed before they turn into cancer.
  • Adults ages 45 to 75 should be screened for colon cancer, but millions of people in the U.S. do not adhere to this recommendation.
  • Checking for cancer when a person has no symptoms is best. If cancer is found at this stage, it is often easier to treat.
  • For more information about colorectal cancer screening, talk to your primary care provider. If you don’t have a PCP, you can find one here. If you want to get screened but don’t have insurance, Cancer Services Program of the Finger Lakes may be able to help. Call 1-877-803-8070 to learn more.

Screening for Lung Cancer

  • Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.
  • Individuals are eligible for a low-dose chest CT to screen for cancer if they are 50 to 80 years old, have smoked a pack a day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years (or more), and either still smoke or have quit within the last 15 years.
  • The guidelines were developed by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPTF), which has also called for prioritizing lung cancer screening for vulnerable, underserved people.
  • Studies show that lung cancer screening and early detection can lead to better outcomes for patients.
  • For more information, please call (877) 728-4543 or visit: