The importance of access to care: Breast cancer care in the Alaska Tribal Health System from diagnosis to start of treatment

May 7, 2016

Routine breast cancer screening is one of the most powerful tools health care providers have to protect our people from death from the disease. Timely access to care for breast cancer treatment is another indicator that lowers the risk of death, with a nationally recommended standard of treatment starting within 60 days following a cancer diagnosis. Knowing this, researchers from ANTHC’s Cancer Program conducted a study to look into the average time it takes Alaska Native women with breast cancer within the Alaska Tribal Health System (ATHS) to start cancer treatment. Breast cancer treatment in the ATHS starts with routine screening through mammography. Mammography is recommended annually for women 40-64 years of age. If breast cancer is suspected through a mammogram, tests are ordered to confirm a cancer diagnosis. Figuring out the correct type of cancer diagnosis and how much it may have spread is very important. It can take several different laboratory tests and coordination between providers to know how to best start treatment. Waiting for test results or for treatment to begin can be a hard time for patients. Getting into medical appointments in a timely manner is one way that ANMC uses to tell if they are providing good health care. The ANMC Oncology and Surgery Clinic staff works hard to get patients in from their home communities to their appointments quickly and efficiently. Starting treatment within the 60-day timeframe is important to reduce the chance of the breast cancer spreading and a patient possibly dying from it. The ANTHC Cancer Program looked at data from 284 Alaska Native women diagnosed with breast cancer between the years of 2009 and 2014, and who had no prior history of any cancers. It was found that 96 percent of women received their first cancer treatment within the recommended guideline of 60 days after initial cancer diagnosis with an average timeframe of 26 days. No differences were found between Alaska Native women living in urban areas like Anchorage vs. rural areas of Alaska. There was also no difference between women by age, cancer stage at diagnosis, and treatment type. Although it may seem like Alaska Native women have delays in treatment because of the long distances they travel to receive treatment, there are no significant delays and gaps in the cancer care at ANMC. Alaska Native women diagnosed with breast cancers within the ATHS are receiving timely care regardless of age, rural or urban residence, or stage diagnosis. This measurement is an important part of ANTHC’s goal that all women receive appropriate breast cancer treatment within 60 days of breast cancer diagnosis. Our access to care measures are an important part of protecting the health of our people and fulfilling our vision that Alaska Native people are the healthiest people in the world.

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