B.C.’s new colon cancer screening program may be saving lives, but it’s also badly lagging in wait times and hampered by a lack of basic information, according to government data. Only 25 per cent of people screened for colon cancer in Vancouver Coastal Health in the last six months have had followup colonoscopies completed within the government benchmark of 60 days, the Ministry of Health data shows.
Waiting times for residents of Vancouver, Richmond, the North Shore and Sunshine Coast lag behind the Fraser Health Authority, where 32 per cent of patients get the procedure within the recommended two months, after positive results from stool tests.
But it’s far better than the Interior Health Authority, where only seven per cent of people screened had a colonoscopy within the provincial timeline, and is also better than the Vancouver Island Health Authority’s rate of 10 per cent.
The Northern Health Authority, meanwhile, is providing the province’s best colon cancer screening response, with 75 per cent of patients between April 1 and Sept. 30 being tested, referred and undergoing a colonoscopy within the two-month guideline.
The numbers, compiled by the government at the request of The Vancouver Sun, show the province’s highly touted new cancer screening program is overwhelmed and not meeting its own standards for response.
Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in B.C. and more than 1,200 people are expected to die of it each year. Yet a person also has a 90 per cent change of survival if it is caught early enough through screening.
“I’m not happy that some of those numbers are low,” Health Minister Terry Lake said.
“However, I think this is a large program, and it’s still undergoing obviously some embryonic changes.”
The new screening program launched province wide last November with a goal of more aggressively screening for colon cancer so that it can be caught earlier and treated.
People between the ages of 50 and 74 receive a take-home stool test and are referred for a colonoscopy if traces of blood are found in the sample, which could indicate cancerous tumours.
Despite the long waits, the ministry said B.C. health facilities have provided 30,000 more colonoscopies than before the program started, representing a 10 per cent increase in procedures. Approximately 1,000 were flagged for high-risk abnormal growths, called polyps, and around 100 patients were diagnosed with cancer and treated.
“While I would have hoped it would have rolled out more quickly and with better results, it’s still remarkable in what it’s doing in just over a year,” said Lake. “And we will get better and better at it.”
Lake ordered the health authorities earlier this year to reduce waiting times and find efficiencies that would allow for more physicians, operating time and completed procedures. But he has not offered more provincial funding. The lack of money and planning means the government program isn’t realizing its full potential, said NDP critic Judy Darcy.
“There’s no way you can have a new program like this without additional investment,” she said.