From text to screen(ing): Englewood Health exec says changing outreach methods is helping bring back patients post-pandemic

Englewood Health executive Helene Wolk said she’s deeply passionate about screening and its critical role in either prevention or early diagnosis of cancer.

Over the past few years, it’s hard to argue most shared in that feeling.

“In the pandemic, a number of tests — annual mammography, colonoscopies, lung screenings — many people omitted them,” Wolk said.

From the perspective of health care leaders, cancer screening was always important and safe, even throughout the pandemic. Yet not all patients felt comfortable enough (or available enough) to pursue those screenings during the many waves of COVID-19’s spread. By the numbers: 1.1 million fewer women received breast cancer screening in the first full year of the pandemic, according to a report in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Wolk, executive vice president of operations and chief operating officer at Englewood Health, said that’s the backdrop to its concerted effort to reengage patients in regular cancer-detecting screenings.

“People went through a lot during the pandemic — personally, professionally, whatever it may be — and giving people a chance to refocus back on themselves and their health was important,” she said. “We wanted to make (our outreach) personalized, actionable and to make it something that would close the care gap by reminding you this is an important health care need.”

The key was making it easy. Wolk expects — and from her own experience, knows — that busy professionals asked to call into a center to schedule a screening themselves would put that task on the back burner. She’s convinced that, if the message wasn’t delivered in text form, it would be even lower on the to-do list.

“Text messages have been much more effective than other tools, such as email, phone calls or snail mail, that have been used to do patient outreach,” she said. “I think it ups, maybe, the urgency. Text, being more immediate, can prompt someone’s attention.”

During Englewood’s initial outreach, it contacted around 7,000 women who had missed regular mammography screenings during the pandemic. Those text alerts resulted in 20% of the contacted patients coming in.

“In terms of any marketing, that’s a high response rate,” Wolk said. “That type of rate would tell you that we reminded them they were missing an important screening and we were there for them to conveniently schedule it at one of our four centers.”

Englewood Health did its own study on how many of those patients would’ve naturally returned post-pandemic to screening services. Far less would’ve been scheduled, they found.

It has since ramped up its outreach to more than 30,000 patients.

“We’re health care providers — we’re in the market to take care of our community,” Wolk said. “I know I and others here feel really proud to say we’ve helped them take care of themselves.”

Advancements in imaging

There’s an unsurprisingly fast pace to the development of cancer screening technology today, according to Helene Wolk of Englewood Health. Cancer care facilities are adding technology just as quickly.

Among Englewood’s own additions is a robot for bronchoscopy, a procedure to visualize and possibly biopsy cancer in the lungs. The robotic device, brought online last year, allows for greater precision and reaching parts of the lung that aren’t the easiest to explore.

The tool allows for a quick, less-invasive cancer diagnosis, which also means patients can start treatment sooner. The response to it has been overwhelmingly positive, Wolk said.

“That goes for physicians, staff members and patients,” she said. “Our chief of thoracic surgery uses (it) a lot. After being a professional for 20 years, he thinks this is revolutionizing what they do. In the past, they’d might have to cut patients open and do invasive procedures to get a piece of a mass just to determine it was benign. Now, we have this technology that can see what a patient is dealing with and how best to treat it without causing any unnecessary harm.”

Englewood also invested in a digital-based PET (or positron emission tomography) machine to examine various biochemical processes in a patient. That helps determine if they have cancer that has spread or returned to different organs.

Wolk explained that this scanner offers a higher level of precision in finding small lesions or cancer locations that might otherwise have gone undetected. It’s also a faster scan.

“People are uncomfortable needing scans and the experience of being in a room with a scanner going around, making noises for 45 minutes,” she said. “Now, from the patient experience, it’s a complete transformation at just around 12-15 minutes for the evaluation.”

Institutions such as Englewood remain on the lookout for the next great advancement in cancer imaging.

“The key is the technology being mature enough,” Wolk said. “These are significant investments that we’re hoping bring significant rewards for our staff and patients.”