Preventing cancer, one colonoscopy at a time

Dr. Sean Ebert of the Omineca Medical Clinic holds group appointments to fast track colorectal cancer screenings.

Dr. Sean Ebert of the Omineca Medical Clinic holds group appointments to fast track colorectal cancer screenings

By holding group medical appointments, Dr. Sean Ebert of the Omineca Medical Clinic is streamlining colorectal cancer screening for patients from as far away as Mackenize.

The group appointments, organized in Vanderhoof, Fort St. James and Burns Lake, have led to an increased awareness of colon health which helps to reduce the number of colorectal cancer cases in the region, said Dr. Ebert, who performs about 300 colonoscopies, or scopes, at St. John Hospital each year.

“I used to find at least one colon cancer per month doing colonoscopies, and now I get one every three months,” he said.

Like other group meetings offered at the Omineca Medical Clinic, the service fast tracks patient consultations and significantly reduces wait times for the procedure.

On average, Dr. Ebert sees referred patients for consultation within about four weeks. If a procedure is required, it can be done electively within about four to six weeks, he said. To participate in the service, patients must be referred by their family doctor or nurse practitioner.

“Patients attend the group, have a consult, get instructions and information and then they leave with an appointment, which makes everybody’s life a lot easier,” said Dr. Ebert.

Colonoscopies may be invasive, but they’re no laughing matter.

Colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of death in Canada among women and men, according to the Colon Cancer Society, a grassroots organization dedicated to raising awareness about the disease and raising funds for treatment.

The slow-developing cancer occurs when abnormal cells develop in the colon, or rectum, and grow together to form polyps. If detected early, polyps can, in many cases, be removed before becoming cancerous.

Although colorectal cancer is up to 90 per cent preventable, only 37 per cent of British Columbians aged 50 to 70 get screened, according to government figures.

“Awareness is the most important thing,” said Dr. Ebert.

Colon cancer screening targets people aged 50 to 75 years old, or anybody considered at higher risk of developing cancer. But regardless of family history, people in the target age group should be screened either by stool sample or with a scope, said Dr. Ebert.

In a September 2010 study, The cost-effectiveness of screening for colorectal cancer, researchers at the University of B.C. and Dalhousie University found that regular screening procedures – annual stool samples and colonoscopies performed every 10 years – in individuals starting at age 50 would reduce cases of colorectal cancer by 44 to 81 per cent, and decrease death rates by 55 to 83 per cent.

“Screening of average-risk individuals for colorectal cancer is a cost-effective measure, even with less-than-perfect compliance,” the study says.

According to the Ministry of Health, the cost of colorectal cancer treatment – surgery, lab tests, doctor visits and chemotherapy – ranges from $5,000 to $500,000 per patient each year, depending on the stage when the cancer is diagnosed.

The Canadian Cancer Society estimates the number of new colorectal cancer cases in B.C. was 2,850, among both women and men, in 2012.

“Procedures to remove pre-cancerous polyps and the associated lab tests and doctor visits are a great deal less costly to the health system than intensive surgery, chemotherapy, specialist visits and hospital time for more advanced colorectal cancer,” Stephen May, a representative for the ministry, stated in an email.

On April 1, the province is introducing a colorectal screening program, Colon Check, for women and men aged 50 to 74 who don’t currently have symptoms of colorectal cancer.

With a cost of between $5 to 10 million annually, the program is expected to identify and treat more cases of colorectal cancer, preventing deaths and lessening the financial burden on the province in the long-term.

“Our main goal with the new colorectal screening program is to catch colorectal cancer earlier, preferably in the pre-cancerous stage, where the costs to treat are much lower,” May stated.

“More important than the financial savings that we may see by catching cancer earlier is the fact that many people will live longer, healthier lives and spend more time with loved ones.”

The group appointments at the Omineca Medical Clinic have largely been successful in creating healthier communities and a leaner, more efficient health care system, said Dr. Ebert.

About 15 years ago, Dr. Ebert and his wife, Nicole Ebert, returned to Vanderhoof from a medical hiatus in Australia, where they performed surgery for one year.

At the time of their return, colonoscopies weren’t being offered in Vanderhoof and there was a demand for the skill set, said Ebert.

“That’s really how we developed the program,” he said.

Since then, Dr. Ebert has detected numerous cases of colorectal cancer. He has also recognized an improvement in awareness and prevention of colorectal cancer, including the adoption of active lifestyles and diets consisting of high-fiber and lots of fluids.

“More and more I see people at my group who are just coming to get screened,” he said.

“The colonoscopy service is one of many services for the patients of our area that provide health care closer to home and work to improve the health of our population.”

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