Here’s a fun fact – 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day. These elders are the wisdom-keepers of our society. How we treat them both defines us today and shapes us for tomorrow. Here in Idaho, where family ties are strong, caring for our parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles is not something we need a lecture on. But every once in a while, new ways of protecting our seniors come along that deserve attention.
As someone who spends the majority of their professional life advocating for seniors in our rural communities, I am concerned about access to healthcare. With high poverty rates and limited healthcare resources, rural Idahoans face significant challenges to receiving quality care. Within this population, it is the elderly who are most at risk given the logistical challenges rural living brings, like making a routine trip to the doctor.
Cancer gives us a window into the real-life consequences of missed doctor visits. While this disease is the second leading cause of death in Idaho, when it is caught early – before it has spread to other parts of the body – the chances of surviving five years or more are nearly 90 percent. This is why cancer screenings, like mammograms and colonoscopies, are viewed as critical to reducing cancer deaths and encouraged by the medical community
As many of us know, it can be tough to fit routine cancer screenings into our schedules, despite knowing all the benefits. It’s all the more difficult for many of our seniors in rural areas, where traveling long distances to reach specialized healthcare facilities is often necessary. Yet, as the age group at greatest risk for cancer, older Americans need screenings most.
Adding to the problem is the little-known fact that, today, we only have screenings available for five out of the more than 100 cancers. The result is that almost three-quarters of all cancer deaths stem from one of the many cancers that lack an early detection test. Even with our best efforts and intentions, there is no way of knowing if cancer of the ovaries, stomach, kidney, liver or many other organs, is lurking.
Here’s where there’s good news that deserves our attention. New technologies in early cancer detection are currently working their way through clinical trials with very promising results. We may soon be able to complement existing screenings and be able to find more than 50 cancers at one time using a simple blood draw. This could revolutionize how we screen for cancer in rural communities, in fact, for people everywhere.
When the promise of these new technological innovations is proven, what remains is making sure the tests are accessible. Our policymakers are well on the way to fixing troubling access barriers through the recently introduced HR 8845, or the Multi-Cancer Early Detection Screening Coverage Act. By providing a path for coverage of multi-cancer early detection tests in Medicare, this bipartisan legislation would help protect the most vulnerable population, seniors, from cancer.
For our rural seniors here in Idaho this legislation is even more critical when considering that according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the differences in death rates between rural and urban areas are increasing over time. I believe we have technology in our grasp that can help change these numbers for the better. We owe it to our neighbors, our friends and our family members to put it to use as soon as we can.
Mike Briggs is the president of the Idaho Senior Living Council