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Most Americans Don't Know What Screening Tests They Need (dateline August 28, 2006)

U.S. government researchers report that most Americans don't know when and how often to get important screening tests such as mammograms, Pap smears, and colonoscopies-even though they know these exams help detect cancer in early stages. Researchers obtained the results while analyzing data from the second installment of the Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS), a nationally representative telephone survey of the general population that was first conducted in 2002-2003 and repeated in 2005.

"We must significantly increase our efforts to inform all Americans of what cancer screening tests are available so that we can catch cancer in its earliest stages when it is most treatable," said National Cancer Institute Acting Director John E. Niederhuber, M.D. "We need to get into communities with a renewed education effort." The survey was The National Cancer Institute developed HINTS to evaluate how the general public accesses and uses information about cancer, and how this information can be delivered most effectively.

Results of the survey showed that:

  • 57% of women in the study were unaware that they need to get mammograms to screen for breast cancer beginning at age 40
  • 61% of women in the study had never heard of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes most cases of cervical cancer
  • 40% of people in the study could not name one of the several types of tests available to screen for colorectal cancer, such as fecal occult blood tests, sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy

The survey also revealed some positive news. About 75% of women said that their health care providers had recommended that they receive mammograms, and 74% reported having received a mammogram as recommended.

According the researchers, knowledge of screening tests varied by the race and ethnicity of the respondents. For example, when asked when screening for colorectal cancer is recommended, 79% of Hispanic respondents did not know the recommended age, compared to 75% of African Americans, 70% of American Indians/Alaskan Natives, and 38% of Whites. However, among all women, only 32% knew that mammograms should begin at age 40, illustrating the need for education among all races.

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