Ron Brooks of Independence Blue Cross Shares New Campaign Toward Colon Cancer Screening for African Americans

April 19, 2021
Peter Wehrwein

,
Briana Contreras

Brooks, senior medical director of Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia, was a key member of the team that created a health awareness campaign launched earlier this month in cooperation with local radio station WURD and other partners including the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, the Independence Blue Cross Foundation, Penn Medicine, Labcorp, and the Health Care Improvement Foundation. The campaign, called “Go To Know,” sets out to increase colon cancer screenings among African Americans by providing free Fecal immunochemical, or FIT, tests.

Genesis of the program

I have to go back to 2019, before the pandemic. At that point, the head of the Center for Innovation at University of Pennsylvania, Roy Rosin, was talking to our chief medical officer, Dr. Richard Snyder, and wanted to address the issue of health equity. This brought together a group of us at Independence, along with WURD radio, which is the largest African American talk radio station in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties. The idea was: could we find a topic that we could address where health equity is a problem, and work together using the trust that WURD has with the African American community in order to make this successful.

We discussed various projects that we thought would be worthwhile. We looked at diabetic screening, diabetic treatment, we looked at cancer detection. We settled on colon cancer screening. The FIT test (fecal immunochemical test), which is a screening test for colon cancer, is a relatively simple test — the logistics of mailing the test to somebody who was interested, getting the test back and getting a result are all relatively simple with regards to what would be required as far as education of what the person should do. So after some planning, we had everything worked out, and then the pandemic hit. That put everything on hold at that moment. So we took some time.

The pandemic highlights equity

Not that we weren't aware of the health equity issues, because that's what really started this in the first place, but clearly the pandemic even intensified everybody's understanding of the health equity issue. In Philadelphia, we have the Black Doctors Covid Consortium, who have gained tremendous trust in the Philadelphia area and highlighted the need to have spokespeople in the African American community to accomplish the type of health equity that we are trying to accomplish. So we retooled the program a little bit and worked with University of Pennsylvania so that we could have everything done correctly from a medical and legal aspect and also logistical aspect. And that's really why we started with the FIT program.

Working with the radio station

The program, which we named “Go to Know,” is being discussed and advertised on WURD. We've had panel discussions featuring African American physicians and more. The program is going to be running for about six months. And we're trying to tie this into other events like Mother's Day, Father's Day. And we'll continue to have speakers on WURD radio, again so that we can build that trust.

Why a radio station?

The radio station came to us with Roy Rosen, the director of innovation at the University of Pennsylvania. They were a part of the group of people that brought the idea to us. In the future, we may expand the program, but for the first go around we wanted to have somebody who was very invested in it. The CEO of the radio station, Sara Lomax-Reese, is a person who has ties to the medical community. Her father was a physician in the area and had a large practice as an African American physician. There were ties there also with regards to the health equity.

African Americans disproportionately affected by colon cancer

African Americans actually are 40% more likely to get colon cancer than non-Hispanic whites, and actually 20% more likely to die from colon cancer than non-Hispanic whites. So the health equity issue is significant. We hope that this will become a model that we can then use to attack other projects, like screening for breast cancer, screening for diabetes, and diabetes control.