How encouraging employees to be screened can improve productivity and save lives Featured

8:01pm EDT September 30, 2011
How encouraging employees to be screened can improve productivity and save lives

Each year, about 40,000 people die in the United States as a result of breast cancer, and more than 232,000 new cases are diagnosed.

But with early detection, the number of deaths could decrease and those who are newly diagnosed would have a better chance at treatment and survival, says Julie Sich, health promotions coordinator for SummaCare Inc.

“Breast cancer is highly treatable if detected in the early stages,” says Sich. “With proper screening done on a regular basis, both men and women diagnosed with breast cancer have a high rate of survival.”

Smart Business spoke with Sich about the importance of early detection and how you, as an employer, can encourage employees to be screened.

How can screening help increase the rate of survival for those with breast cancer?

Based on a person’s history, age, lifestyle and other factors, a doctor may recommend screening for cancer. Because cancer starts at the cellular level and can grow slowly, screening can identify cancers before they become large enough to be physically detected and/or symptoms appear.

What are the risk factors of breast cancer?

The chances of getting breast cancer increase with age, and the majority of women are older than age 60 when diagnosed. A woman’s personal health history can also have an impact — someone who has suffered breast cancer in one breast is more likely to be diagnosed in the other.

Family history also plays a role; if your mother, father, sister or daughter has had an occurrence, especially before age 50, you are at higher risk for the disease. Having other relatives with breast cancer, both on the maternal and paternal sides, also increases your odds. Other risk factors include having a first child later in life, never having children, having a first menstrual period before age 12 and going through menopause after age 55.

While most of these factors cannot be controlled, a person can take steps to control other risk factors by decreasing alcohol consumption, eating healthy foods, staying at a healthy weight and taking part in regular physical activity.

It’s also important to remember that while most people think of breast cancer as a female disease, men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer. Of the more than 232,000 new diagnoses expected in 2011, more than 2,000 of those will be men, so men also need to be screened as part of their routine physicals.

How often should someone be screened?

Self-exams are recommended monthly for women starting in their 20s. Women in their 30s should talk with their physician to determine when it is clinically appropriate to schedule their first mammogram and frequency. Once a woman reaches the age of 40, clinical breast examinations are recommended every one to two years.

Mammograms — which can detect early changes in the breast before they can be felt — are recommended every two years after age 40. However, some women should be screened more often, for example, if they face high risk or have had an abnormal mammogram in the past. Women should talk with their physicians to determine what interval is best for them based on their personal and family histories.

If a mammogram indicates a suspicious area, that test may be followed up with an MRI, ultrasound or biopsy.

Why should employers encourage employees to be screened?

Early detection can result in both direct and indirect benefits for an employer. Screening will give employees peace of mind, improve their health and keep them healthier, happier and more productive at work. In addition, the investment in early detection can result in a huge cost savings to the employer, employee and the insurance company. Direct medical costs are high, lost productivity can be substantial and disability can continue for long periods of time. If cancer is found in the early stages, the resulting costs and time off work will be much smaller than if it had not been detected until later.

Screening costs insurance companies a few hundred dollars and can catch the disease early, while it can still be easily treated. Without screening, the disease may not be discovered until it has advanced, when treatment is much more difficult and costly — potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars.

How can employers encourage employees to be screened?

Employers can help employees stay healthy and identify breast cancer early by making sure that their benefit plans cover cancer prevention and early screening services.  Providing adequate coverage can help encourage employees who would otherwise not be screened to get screened. Offering education and incentives can also make employees aware of these services and encourage them to take advantage of them.

Employers should encourage employees to eat well, stop smoking, exercise and drink less as part of an overall approach to health, and incorporate these concepts as part of their wellness activities. Following these guidelines will help employees not only reduce their risk of breast cancer, but other cancers and diseases as well.

Employers can also sponsor activities during Breast Cancer Awareness Month and offer matches to fundraisers for activities such as the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

By providing comprehensive health insurance and creating better access to preventive services, you can not only help your employees stay healthy but reduce turnover and lost productivity, avert direct medical costs and create a reputation as an employer who cares about the health of its employees.

Julie Sich is health promotions coordinator for SummaCare Inc. Reach her at (330) 996-8779 or sichj@summacare.com.