Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 22, Issue 11, pp 1493–1499 | Cite as

Physician–Patient Communication about Colorectal Cancer Screening

  • Michael S. Wolf
  • David W. Baker
  • Gregory Makoul
Original Article



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.


physician–patient communication physician attitudes colorectal cancer screening 



This work was supported in part by a grant from the National Cancer Institute to Dr. Makoul (R21CA107242). Dr. Wolf is supported by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Career Development Award (K01 EH000067-01).

Conflict of Interest Statement

Dr. Wolf has received research grants from Pfizer Pharmaceuticals and Target Corporation.


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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael S. Wolf
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • David W. Baker
    • 1
    • 2
  • Gregory Makoul
    • 1
    • 3
  1. 1.Division of General Internal Medicine, Center for Communication and MedicineFeinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern UniversityChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Institute for Healthcare StudiesFeinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern UniversityChicagoUSA
  3. 3.Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern UniversityChicagoUSA

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