In Focus

Underserved populations and colorectal cancer screening: Patient perceptions of barriers to care and effective interventions


Editor's Note:

As we all strive to improve the rate of colorectal cancer screening, it is important to acknowledge that barriers exist that prevent screening uptake.

Importantly, these barriers often vary between specific population subsets. In this month’s In Focus article, brought to you by The New Gastroenterologist, the members of the AGA Institute Diversity Committee provide an enlightening overview of the barriers affecting underserved populations as well as strategies that can be employed to overcome these impediments. Better understanding of patient-specific barriers will, I hope, allow us to more effectively redress them and ultimately increase colorectal cancer screening rates in all populations.

Bryson W. Katona, MD, PhD
Editor in Chief, The New Gastroenterologist

Despite the positive public health effects of colorectal cancer (CRC) screening, there remains differential uptake of CRC screening in the United States. Minority populations born in the United States and immigrant populations are among those with the lowest rates of CRC screening, and both socioeconomic status and ethnicity are strongly associated with stage of CRC at diagnosis.1,2 Thus, recognizing the economic, social, and cultural factors that result in low rates of CRC screening in underserved populations is important in order to devise targeted interventions to increase CRC uptake and reduce morbidity and mortality in these populations.

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What are the facts and figures?

The overall rate of screening colonoscopies has increased in all ethnic groups in the past 10 years but still falls below the goal of 71% established by the Healthy People project ( for the year 2020.3 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ethnicity-specific data for U.S.-born populations, 60% of whites, 55% of African Americans (AA), 50% of American Indian/Alaskan natives (AI/AN), 46% of Latino Americans, and 47% of Asians undergo CRC screening (Figure 1A).4 While CRC incidence in non-Hispanic whites age 50 years and older has dropped by 32% since 2000 because of screening, this trend has not been observed in AAs.5,6

The incidence of CRC in AAs is estimated at 49/10,000, one of the highest amongst U.S. populations and is the second and third most common cancer in AA women and men, respectively (Figure 1B).

Similar to AAs, AI/AN patients present with more advanced CRC disease and at younger ages and have lower survival rates, compared with other racial groups, a trend that has not changed in the last decade.7 CRC screening data in this population vary according to sex, geographic location, and health care utilization, with as few as 4.0% of asymptomatic, average-risk AI/ANs who receive medical care in the Indian Health Services being screened for CRC.8

The low rate of CRC screening among Latinos also poses a significant obstacle to the Healthy People project since it is expected that by 2060 Latinos will constitute 30% of the U.S. population. Therefore, strategies to improve CRC screening in this population are needed to continue the gains made in overall CRC mortality rates.

Dr. Chien-Huan Chen, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis

Dr. Chien-Huan Chen

The percentage of immigrants in the U.S. population increased from 4.7% in 1970 to 13.5% in 2015. Immigrants, regardless of their ethnicity, represent a very vulnerable population, and CRC screening data in this population are not as robust as for U.S.-born groups. In general, immigrants have substantially lower CRC screening rates, compared with U.S.-born populations (21% vs. 60%),9 and it is suspected that additional, significant barriers to CRC screening and care exist for undocumented immigrants.


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