February marks National Cancer Prevention Month, an initiative to bring awareness to ways Americans can reduce their risk for cancer. While more than 1.7 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year, research suggests that up to 50 percent of cases – and 50 percent of deaths – are preventable. That’s why one key recommendation is to get regular cancer screenings.

This is especially important as we consider how to improve health equity in America. Black Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival rate of any racial or ethnic group across most cancers. To address this imbalance, the health care community, together with leaders at the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, is focusing its attention on closing the gap in cancer screenings to ensure all Americans, no matter their race or ethnic background, have access to the best quality cancer care.

Cancer underscreening is one of the biggest factors contributing to this difference in death rate. Compared to other racial and ethnic groups, far fewer African Americans are screened for leading cancers like breast, colon, and lung, where diagnosing patients earlier has a clear impact on mortality.

Take colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, where screening has stagnated at a mere 66 percent, compared to the Center for Disease Control’s goal of 80 percent. And these rates are far lower in minority communities, where only 59 percent of Hispanics and 65 percent of African Americans are up to date with recommended screenings. What’s more, minorities often confront barriers to access, such as a dearth of convenient medical facilities for screenings, transportation challenges and jobs that lack flexibility or paid time off.

The good news is new technology using blood-based screening tests can help close the screening gap on a global scale. In contrast to traditional screening tests, such as a colonoscopy or mammogram, blood-based tests are simple to use, less invasive and reduce patient follow-through, as they can be completed during routine doctor visits. Together, this makes it far easier to integrate screenings into the existing health system, helping significantly address screening disparities.

But blood-based tests can only move the needle if patients have access, and this depends on the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force. The Task Force is a panel of national disease prevention and primary care experts who make evidence-base recommendations about clinical preventive services based on a five-year review cycle. Their recommendations require private insurers and Medicaid to cover preventative services without cost-sharing for patients, greatly influencing patient access to life-saving preventative care.

The Task Force recognizes the role they can play for patient access, and just last November, they published an article in JAMA acknowledging the impact their recommendations may have on health equity – and accepting that health equity ought to play a bigger role in their recommendations. They endorsed “embedding [health equity] considerations in every step of the recommendation development process” to help address the problem of systemic racism, and now plan to pilot inclusion of evidence of differential effectiveness, reach or delivery of clinical preventative services and implementation outcomes.

This is certainly a good first step but the challenge now is for the Task Force to move quickly to broadly adopt these necessary changes and focus their sights on keeping pace with medical advancements. Right now, the Task Force recommendations are updated every five years. A timely review of the innovations that can play a significant role in addressing health disparities, like blood-based screening tests, can reinforce the Task Force’s commitment to health equity and provide patients with access to life-saving technologies.

This National Cancer Prevention Month, we must refocus our efforts to close the screening gap and reduce persistent health care disparities. The drive from industry is there. But we need Washington to keep up – or our most vulnerable will be left behind.

AmirAli Talasaz is co-CEO and Jenn Higgins is vice president, Government Affairs at Guardant Health, a precision oncology company located in Redwood City, CA.

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