By Mark J. Bonamo
Our increasingly health-conscious society now places a greater emphasis on personal wellness. We strive in many ways to boost our health, whether it is through exercise, diet, and meditation, among a host of other options. Wellness screening for several critical diseases, such as cardiac, breast, colon, and lung cancer, can be a significant and easily achievable component of a more proactive approach to healthcare.
Incorporating the use of advanced screening technologies enhances the ability of physicians to diagnosis and treat patients at earlier stages of the disease. Wellness screening can lead to better outcomes, including a longer lifespan and a better quality of life, with more precious time to spend with family, friends, and loved ones.
Dr. Neil Freeman, Chair of Radiology at Saint Clare’s Health, explains that wellness is about the maintenance and promotion of good health, especially in light of ongoing improvements in medical technology.
“Medicine began to acquire more advanced screening technologies in the late 20th century, but we used it to focus primarily on disease. The technology toolbox was used mostly to attack problems,” Freeman said. “In first two decades of the 21th century, there has been a shift to focus increasingly on wellness, which means maintaining and promoting good health before disease progresses and becomes a significant problem.”
The screening process includes the utilization of various technologies that assists the physicians to detect the earliest stages of disease in patients who may be asymptomatic, or having no symptoms. Early detection provides opportunities for treatment at the earlies of stages before the disease significantly manifests itself. A common example is a blood cholesterol test.
“People come in for a general checkup who feel well, and have blood testing, which includes cholesterol levels. Based upon results, your physician will advise you if you’re at an increased risk for heart disease. This is the point where the doctor and the patient can be proactive together. They outline the necessary steps that patients can proactively take, such as dietary, lifestyle, and medications to decrease their health risk,” Freeman said. “That’s quite different to someone coming to the emergency department with chest pains due to advanced cardiovascular disease, possibly a heart attack. Unfortunately, at this point, the cardiac damage is already done. Clearly, you can understand the advantages of screening.”
The more precise goals of screening are risk stratification – which determines if someone may or may not be a higher risk for a particular disease – and early detection – where the early onset of a disease can be treated much more effectively.
Advances in imaging technology have played a major role in the increased use of screening across the board. Mammography is the largest screening program that exists. It is estimated that 40 million Americans undergo screening mammography annually. The American College of Radiology recommends that annual mammograms should begin for women at age 40 and continue until age 74.
“Again, if breast cancer is detected early, women have a much greater chance of survival,” Freeman said. “Through mammography, we can detect cancers that are as small as a few millimeters, and therefore patients can experience much less radical treatment and increased opportunities for better outcomes.”
New technology for cardiac or heart screenings has also led to advances in treating cardiovascular disease. The plaques that build on the walls of arteries often contain calcium, and CT scans are extremely sensitive in terms of detection
“The actual scan measures the amount of calcium in the walls of the arteries, which is reported in a Calcium Score. The scan requires no contrast injection and takes on a few seconds,” Freeman said, noting the general guideline for cardiac screenings is for people more than 40 years old. “Based on the results, we can tell you the risk you have of developing a cardiovascular issue in the future.”
Lung cancer image screenings have also become increasingly utilized as imagining technology continues to advance and improve. These types of scans use a much lower dose of radiation than typical CT scans in order to ensure the safety of patients who are at high risk, such as heavy smokers. According to Freeman, “Anyone from the age of 50 to 80 who has smoked 20 packs or more of cigarettes a year and who continue to smoke meet the criteria for those at high risk. If a patient has quit smoking for less than 15 years, they also fit the parameters of people who would most benefit from a lung cancer image screening.”
Once again, if lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer death in America, is detected early, there is a much greater chance for survival. According to studies cited by Dr. Freeman, patients who are screened have an approximately 20 percent lower rate of death than those individuals who are not screened.
Alternative imaging scans from colon cancer have been recently introduced. “Colonoscopies have been the gold standard for detection of colon cancer. It requires a minimally invasive procedure, although the prep is a bit distasteful. More recently, a scan called CT colonography has been developed, which is sometimes called a virtual colonoscopy. The positive is that it is good for the detection of cancerous polyps and is even less invasive,” Freeman said. “The disadvantage is you still have to prepare for this procedure by cleaning out your colon, and if a polyp is found, it cannot be removed. You will still need to have a colonoscopy.”
An increasingly popular trend is whole-body CT screening scans. Freeman weighs-in on the many misconceptions about this screening process. “I’m sure that these scans are occasionally beneficial in terms of detecting something. However, I will say that there is no medical society that endorses and recommends this practice,” Freeman said, “In general, there is a very high chance of false positives, which can lead to people having additional unnecessary imaging tests and occasionally unnecessary invasive biopsies! Additionally, there are almost no guidelines as to how many of these types of scans are necessary. There is also no data to support it. It’s a slippery slope.”
Overall, Freeman pointed to Saint Clare’s Health’s advanced technology for screening. “Saint Clare’s Health offers the most advanced screening technology available, anywhere! Saint Clare’s offers the convenience of being close to home, quality care, combined with advanced technology. We treat each patient like family!”
“Screenings are potential lifesavers. People do all sorts of things to protect their health. Why not a screening?” Freeman said. “It’s a question of prolonging and increasing the quality of your life. I urge people to visit their doctor, and if they need a screening, make it a priority.”
Saint Clare’s Health offers a wide range of wellness screening options at Denville and Dover, locations. For more information, please visit www.saintclares.com.