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Cancer survey sent to Penn State Health employees balanced privacy, desire to help

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Dr. Thomas McGarrity, a gastroenterologist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, created a survey to better understand the percentage of Penn State Health employees that have been tested for colorectal cancer.
Dr. Thomas McGarrity, a gastroenterologist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, created a survey to better understand the percentage of Penn State Health employees that have been tested for colorectal cancer. - (Photo / )

Executives in Penn State Health's human resources department wondered if they would be straying outside their boundaries when a gastroenterologist proposed sending a survey to all health system employees over 40.

“They had never done this kind of survey,” said the gastroenterologist, Dr. Thomas McGarrity. He works at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Derry Township, Dauphin County.

The survey created by McGarrity asked employees what colorectal cancer tests they have undergone recently and delved into their family history related to various cancers. The ultimate goal was to identify and help at-risk employees get screening, which can reduce the risk of cancer.

But, McGarrity said, HR officials were concerned about employee privacy.

“The big reservation of the human resources department is that they are the advocates of the employees and they felt there should be a firewall between the employees and human resources,” McGarrity said

To resolve the concerns and get the survey to over 6,000 Penn State Health employees, McGarrity worked alongside David Swift, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for the health system.

In order to ensure employee privacy, Swift decided the survey wouldn’t be handled by the HR department, but was instead given to the system’s department of employee health, which is staffed by clinicians trained to handle employee health information.

A prompt to act

Penn State Health ultimately administered the new survey in March 2018 and received responses from 2,438 employees, a figure that pleased McGarrity. He said the system also was mostly happy with the results, which showed that older employees were more likely to have gotten screening.

About 80 percent of employees under 50 had had recent screenings, while the total was 90 percent for those over 60. The survey also showed that employees between 40 and 49 with higher risks of the cancer were less likely to have had recent screening, at a 46 percent likelihood.

Colorectal cancer screening is vital, according to McGarrity, because it looks for pre-cancerous conditions that can be easily eliminated. Since 2000, rates of colorectal cancer have declined by 32 percent, according to a 2017 study by the American Cancer Society, which credits a big portion of the decline to more screenings.

McGarrity believes other large organizations could learn from the survey because it can help dictate how they can move forward in educating workers.

His goal, he said, was to see at least 80 percent of respondents over 50 having been screened. If the results had come up short, the HR department could have looked to educate employees about the importance of screening. The survey, too, could have prompted them to act.

“Someone gets a survey and they say, ‘I didn’t even think of this,’” Swift said. “The benefit I saw was that it will raise awareness of the over 40 population and there isn’t any company that wouldn’t benefit from that.”

Having a grasp on how many employees are getting the testing they need is difficult, according to Liz Ford, director of compensation and benefits for High Companies, one of central Pennsylvania’s largest private companies. The East Lampeter Township, Lancaster County-based company employs 1,700 people, with subsidiaries specializing in construction, real estate, architecture, hotels and transit.

 “We can get statistics from our insurance carrier for certain preventative screenings, but it is difficult to understand how many people are getting preventative colonoscopies,” Ford said, adding that statistics can include individuals who are not at the right age for screening, which can skew the numbers.

With more accurate information, Ford said, her department would have a better understanding of how much they should be educating employees about colorectal cancer.

 “A survey like the one done by Penn State Health would likely fit well within our health management program,” she said. “It would definitely be something we would consider, as long as employees understood it was confidential.”

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Ioannis Pashakis

Ioannis Pashakis

Ioannis Pashakis covers health care and Lancaster County. Email him at ipashakis@cpbj.com.

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