Phone calls work better than letters for reminding patients about cancer screening

Phone calls work better as patient reminders than mailed letters when attempting to increase compliance for cancer screening, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.

“Previous evidence has shown us that patient outreach improves cancer screening rates,” said lead author Tara Kiran, MD, of the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute and St. Michael's Hospital Academic Family Health Team, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in a prepared statement. “But it was unclear which methods were most effective in primary care.”

Kiran and colleagues sought to determine if integrated outreach using mailed letters or telephone calls would increase compliance for three types of cancer screening: cervical, breast and colorectal.

A total of 3,733 females and 1,537 males were randomized to receive one of the interventions—either mailed letters or telephone calls. Of the females, 33 percent were reminded using a letter and 41 percent received a reminder phone call for a screening test. Of the males, approximately 25 percent received a reminded using a letter and 29 percent received a reminder phone call for colorectal cancer.

Overall, 41 percent of women who received a phone call underwent screening, compared to 33 percent of women who received a letter. Among men, on the other hand, 29 percent who received a phone call underwent screening, compared to 25 percent of men who received a letter. 

“Though phone calls were decidedly most effective among women and men, our path forward was not clear-cut,” Kiran said in the prepared statement. “The phone calls were twice as expensive because of the time it took staff to reach out to patients.”

So what should healthcare providers take away from these findings?

“Primary care practices should consider integrating phone call reminders into their practice, possibly as part of a targeted or staged approach to outreach for cancer screening," the study's authors concluded.