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Like traditional colonoscopy, the newer, virtual test can detect precancerous polyps and cancer, but it's less invasive. It uses CT technology to see inside the colon. The American Cancer Society recommends so-called CT colonography as one way to screen people for colon cancer starting at age 50, but not all insurance companies cover it.
Only about two-thirds of people who should be screened for colon cancer actually get tested, said the study's lead author, Dr. Maureen Smith. She is a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.
"CT colonography is a newer technology that can detect both pre-cancer and cancer, but because it's relatively new it isn't widely covered by insurance and isn't covered by Medicare," Smith said in a news release from the Radiological Society of North America.
Smith's team wondered if changing insurance benefits to cover virtual colonoscopy might improve screening rates. The investigators analyzed test rates for about 33,000 people under age 65 who were eligible and due for colon screening. About half were screened during the study period.
But those whose insurance covered virtual colonoscopy were 48 percent more likely to be screened than those without that coverage, the findings showed.
"Our study suggests that when people are offered a greater choice of screening tests for colorectal cancer, including CT colonography, they are more likely to complete screening to prevent colorectal cancer," Smith said.
The study authors said that the findings are important for health officials who aim to improve screening rates, particularly among people with low incomes and in rural areas who tend to forgo testing.
"Policymakers should consider additional options for screening and prevention of colorectal cancer. CT colonography is potentially a powerful option, because there are people who will prefer it," Smith said in the news release.
Though some insurers have been open to covering it, she said getting Medicare to follow suit will likely take time.
The findings were published online July 11 in the journal Radiology.
-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
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SOURCE: Radiological Society of North America, news release, July 11, 2017