Jordi Gassó Photo
Mayor Harp and Fair Haven Community Health Center CEO Suzanne Lagarde at the press conference.
New Haven is one of just three cities in the nation to receive a grant to expand colorectal (aka colon) cancer screenings and treatment, provided to underserved communities at low or no cost. The $100,000 grant from the American Cancer Society, funded through Walgreens, was awarded to the Fair Haven Community Health Center (FHCHC).
The grant, announced at a press conference at the center, will increase the health center’s colorectal cancer screening rate to 70 percent, which would require that over 800 additional patients be screened by 2015. FHCHC plans to streamline referrals and develop best practices for a colorectal cancer-screening program geared toward the underserved.
“Whenever we have to speak about cancer, I think it’s fair to say that it’s pretty scary,” said Suzanne Lagarde, a board-certified gastroenterologist and the health center’s CEO. “This is particularly true if you’re confronting language and cultural barriers. In our program, we address these challenges head on.”
Patient navigation is key to this new program, guiding the patient through the entire screening process, from understanding its importance, to preparing for a colonoscopy, to ensuring that barriers such as transportation and childcare are removed.
The program began in July and has already completed 55 screenings, with 71 scheduled appointments and 265 total referrals as of last week, said Marelyn Vega (pictured), the center’s first colorectal cancer screening patient navigator. Vega, who is bilingual and a Fair Haven native, acts as a factotum of sorts: She helps to fill out forms, or picks up patients at their home, or fields questions about GoLYTELY, the solution used for bowel preparation before colonoscopies.
“If you’re not navigated the right way, you might not even have the opportunity to get the procedure done,” she told the Independent. Part of her job, she explained, is to assuage patients’ anxieties and dispel urban legends about screenings.
These myths are an important hurdle for healthcare providers to jump over, Mayor Toni Harp said during the press conference, which took place this past Thursday. Harp, whose mother-in-law and husband succumbed to colon cancer, said it is imperative to let patients know that colorectal screenings are both painless and preventive.
Indeed, national rates of screening remain unequal between disparate communities. According to Katharine Lewis, deputy commissioner for the state public health department, only 67 percent of blacks are screened, compared with 74.1 percent of whites, and only 48.9 percent of those with low incomes are screened compared to 79.1 percent of those with higher incomes.
To close these gaps, FHCHC has partnered with Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH) to provide the screenings for this new program. FHCHC will bring the patient to the door of the colonoscopy suite, but it’s the YNHH doctors who will do that work, waiving the fee for uninsured patients.
“We’ve all heard the saying that it takes a village to raise a child,” said Lagarde (pictured). “Well, this is really no different. We cannot do this alone.”
According to the American Cancer Society, this year 1,650 new cases of colon cancers are expected in Connecticut, and around 460 people will likely lose their battle with the disease.
As the Fair Haven program continues to take in more patients, the Community Health Centers’ Association of Connecticut is poised to take the best practices from this process and spread them through the rest of the state.