Original Article

Journal of General Internal Medicine

, 24:1228

First online:

Behind Closed Doors: Physician-Patient Discussions About Colorectal Cancer Screening

  • Amy McQueenAffiliated withDivision of Health Behavior Research, Washington University, School of Medicine Email author 
  • , L. Kay BartholomewAffiliated withSchool of Public Health, University of Texas-Houston
  • , Anthony J. GreisingerAffiliated withKelsey Research Foundation
  • , Gilda G. MedinaAffiliated withSchool of Public Health, University of Texas-Houston
  • , Sarah T. HawleyAffiliated withSchool of Medicine, University of Michigan
  • , Paul HaidetAffiliated withThe Houston Center for Quality of Care and Utilization Studies at the DeBakey VA Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine
  • , Judith L. BettencourtAffiliated withSchool of Public Health, University of Texas-Houston
  • , Navkiran K. ShokarAffiliated withUniversity of Texas Medical Branch
  • , Bruce S. LingAffiliated withSchool of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh
    • , Sally W. VernonAffiliated withSchool of Public Health, University of Texas-Houston

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Despite the availability of multiple effective screening tests for colorectal cancer, screening rates remain suboptimal. The literature documents patient preferences for different test types and recommends a shared decision-making approach for physician-patient colorectal cancer screening (CRCS) discussions, but it is unknown whether such communication about CRCS preferences and options actually occurs in busy primary-care settings.


Describe physician-patient CRCS discussions during a wellness visit.


Cross-sectional; patients audio-recorded with physicians.


A subset of patients (N = 64) participating in a behavioral intervention trial designed to increase CRCS who completed a wellness visit during the trial with a participating physician (N = 8).


Transcripts were analyzed using qualitative methods.


Physicians in this sample consistently recommended CRCS, but focused on colonoscopy. Physicians did not offer a fecal occult blood test alone as a screening choice, which may have created missed opportunities for some patients to get screened. In this single visit, physicians’ communication processes generally precluded discussion of patients’ test preferences and did not facilitate shared decision-making. Patients’ questions indicated their interest in different CRCS test types and appeared to elicit more information from physicians. Some patients remained resistant to CRCS after discussing it with a physician.


If a preference for colonoscopy is widespread among primary-care physicians, the implications for intervention are either to prepare patients for this preference or to train physicians to offer options when recommending screening to patients.


colorectal cancer screening physician-patient communication shared decision-making qualitative research interventions