Albertans living in rural areas are less likely to access specialized medical services than their urban counterparts. This is especially the case when it comes to preventative measures such as cancer screening.
Now, a new pilot project is addressing the challenge by expanding and integrating the range of screening services that make the rounds to rural and northern communities.
“Northern Alberta has the lowest rates of cancer screening in Canada,” says Kristina Saric, a nurse practitioner working with the Alberta Health Services Integrated Access to Cancer Screening Project.
For decades, AHS has used the Screen Test mobile mammogram units to provide breast cancer screening to the province’s rural and remote communities. This year, Saric is travelling alongside the mobile mammogram unit to offer testing for cervical and colorectal cancer in addition to breast cancer screening in many communities.
The expanded screening program started in December 2020. The project team secured funding from Alberta Health through the Cancer Screening Research and Innovation Opportunity (CSRIO). Alberta Innovates and Alberta Health co-designed and launched CSRIO to accelerate the development and testing of ways to enhance cancer screening processes and rates in marginalized populations.
Early testing important for prevention
The benefits of getting more people screened are hard to overstate. Early testing can prevent 90 per cent of cervical cancers. Early detection drastically improves the effectiveness and survival rates of both cervical and colorectal cancers.
The province has a handful of cancer centres around the province, but much of the equipment and staff are located in larger communities. What might be an hour-long appointment for someone living in a city can turn into an all-day commitment for rural Alberta patients, which might cause them to skip preventative screening altogether.
“If it is hard to do, you’re just not going to do it,” Saric says.
Making cancer screening easier
Saric says many of the patients she has talked to in northern Alberta don’t have family doctors to help book scans. Other patients are not always comfortable speaking with their family physician about screening. For example, some women prefer to have a female doctor perform a Pap test, Saris says, but smaller communities might not have many female health-care providers.
The mobile screening unit is designed to break down some of those barriers and encourage people to get screened. For the past several months, Saric and another nurse practitioner have been travelling with the mobile mammogram unit as it moves between many communities in Northern Alberta.
“We are making it possible for all Albertans to realize the benefits of early screening and diagnosis, through initiatives like CRSIO and the supporting partnerships between communities, innovators and the health system,” says Nicole Mardis, Senior Business Partner, Health Innovation at Alberta Innovates.
While breast cancer screening can be done right in the Screen Test trailer, Pap tests are done in a clinic space close to where the mobile unit is set up. The fecal immunochemical test (FIT) checks for colorectal cancer, a test that can be done at home and brought back for analysis.
Robin Barnes, a 55-year-old living in Peace River, has been tested in the mobile mammogram unit for the past five or six years. This year, she also received the cervical and colorectal screenings offered by the new program.
Barnes is diligent about getting screened: her mother and aunt both were diagnosed with breast cancer. But without the AHS mobile units, she says that would be much more difficult in Peace River, a community that needs more doctors.
“For any specialized services, generally, we have to go to Grand Prairie or Edmonton. And I know some people who have chronic health issues, that’s their life, driving up and down.”
A benefit to rural patients
The expanded cancer screening is a huge benefit to rural patients, Barnes says. As importantly, she says, is the educational aspect of the program. Having health-care providers with expertise in cancer screening in the community, even for just a few days, can be helpful for patients who have questions about cancer prevention.
Saric says the response from the communities has been a bit overwhelming. Often, they found themselves fully booked, working long hours to try and get as many patients screened as possible.
The service is clearly needed and appreciated. “There has been a very favourable response on surveys – 99 per cent of people have said they would like to come back,” Saric says.
The pilot project is scheduled to run until December 2021. To learn more about cancer screening in Alberta, visit screeningforlife.ca.