, Volume 22, Issue 11, pp 1493-1499
Date: 13 Sep 2007

Physician–Patient Communication about Colorectal Cancer Screening

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Despite the documented benefits of colorectal cancer screening, patient participation rates remain low. Physician recommendation has been identified as a significant predictor of screening completion.


The aim of this study is to investigate how primary care physicians perceive colorectal cancer screening communication tasks, as well as to explore the form and content of actual screening discussions.


The research design includes a mailed physician survey and a separate observational study in a sample of videotaped medical encounters.

Participants and Data Sources

The participants were 270 primary care physicians who completed a mailed questionnaire (57.9% response rate) and 18 physician–patient encounters that included discussions of colorectal cancer screening.


The questionnaire focused on perceived importance and accomplishment of communication tasks relevant to colorectal cancer screening. Two of the authors reviewed transcripts of videotaped physician encounters to determine whether the same communication tasks assessed in the survey were accomplished. Interrater reliability was high across all of the mutually exclusive coding categories (Kappa > .90).


Physicians rated colonoscopy as the most important screening option to discuss; self-reports indicate that colonoscopy (84.8%) is more frequently mentioned than fecal occult blood test (FOBT; 49.4%), flexible sigmoidoscopy (34.1%), or computed tomography (CT) imaging (18.1%). Explaining benefits and risks, describing test procedure and frequency, eliciting patient preferences, and making a plan for screening were all viewed as very important. Self-reported accomplishment of these communication tasks was considerably higher than that observed in our separate videotape sample.


Most physicians recognize and espouse the importance of recommending colorectal cancer screening to eligible patients. However, findings from both the physician survey and observational study suggest that physicians tend to overestimate the extent of discussions about screening. Interventions may be warranted to improve clinical practice.