Decreasing Disparities in Breast Cancer Screening in Refugee Women Using Culturally Tailored Patient Navigation

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  • Decreasing Disparities in Breast Cancer Screening in RefugeeWomen Using Culturally Tailored Patient Navigation

    Sanja Percac-Lima, MD, PHD1,2,5, Jeffrey M. Ashburner, MPH2, Barbara Bond, LICSW, EdD3,4,Sarah A. Oo, MSW1,5, and Steven J. Atlas, MD, MPH2

    1 Massachusetts General Hospital Chelsea HealthCare Center, Chelsea, MA, USA; 2Department of Medicine Massachusetts General HospitalGeneral Medicine Division, Boston, MA, USA; 3 Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, Boston, MA, USA; 4 Bridgewater StateUniversity, Bridgewater, MA, USA; 5 Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Community Health Improvement, Boston, MA, USA.

    BACKGROUND: Patient navigator (PN) programs canimprove breast cancer screening in low income, ethnic/racial minorities. Refugee women have low breastcancer screening rates, but it has not been shown thatPN is similarly effective.OBJECTIVE: Evaluate whether a PN program forrefugee women decreases disparities in breast cancerscreening.DESIGN: Retrospective program evaluation of animplemented intervention.PARTICIPANTS:Women who self-identified as speakingSomali, Arabic, or Serbo-Croatian (Bosnian) and wereeligible for breast cancer screening at an urban com-munity health center (HC). Comparison groups wereEnglish-speaking and Spanish-speaking women eligiblefor breast cancer screening in the same HC.INTERVENTION: Patient navigators educated womenabout breast cancer screening, explored barriers toscreening, and tailored interventions individually tohelp complete screening.MAIN MEASURES: Adjusted 2-year mammographyrates from logistic regression models for each calendaryear accounting for clustering by primary care physi-cian. Rates in refugee women were compared to En-glish-speaking and Spanish-speaking women in theyear before implementation of the PN program and overits first 3 years.RESULTS: There were 188 refugee (36 Somali, 48Arabic, 104 Serbo-Croatian speaking), 2,072 English-speaking, and 2,014 Spanish-speaking women eligiblefor breast cancer screening over the 4-year studyperiod. In the year prior to implementation of theprogram, adjusted mammography rates were loweramong refugee women (64.1 %, 95 % CI: 4977 %)compared to English-speaking (76.5 %, 95 % CI: 69 %83 %) and Spanish-speaking (85.2 %, 95 % CI: 79 %90 %) women. By the end of 2011, screening ratesincreased in refugee women (81.2 %, 95 % CI: 72 %88 %), and were similar to the rates in English-speaking(80.0 %, 95 % CI: 73 %86 %) and Spanish-speaking(87.6 %, 95 % CI: 82 %91 %) women. PN increased

    screening rates in both younger and older refugeewomen.CONCLUSION: Linguistically and culturally tailored PNdecreased disparities over time in breast cancer screen-ing among female refugees from Somalia, the MiddleEast and Bosnia.

    KEY WORDS: breast cancer screening; patient navigation; vulnerablepopulations; disparities.

    J Gen Intern Med

    DOI: 10.1007/s11606-013-2491-4

    Society of General Internal Medicine 2013


    Despite evidence that reductions in breast cancer morbidityand mortality can be achieved through early detection andtreatment,1,2 patients continue to present with advanceddisease without prior screening.3,4 This is particularly truefor refugees and recent immigrants, patients with limitedEnglish proficiency, patients with low income, and racialand ethnic minorities.59

    Over 56,000 refugees were permanently resettled to theUnited States in 2011.10 Many suffer from posttraumaticstress disorder caused by events leading to forced emigra-tion, making these patients among the most vulnerable inour society. While precise data about preventive cancer careamong refugees is very limited, they are more likely thannon-refugees to have never had a mammogram or to havedelayed screening.11

    The 2000 National Health Interview Survey revealed thatwomen who immigrated to the United States within the last10 years were less likely to have had a mammogram withinthe last 2 years than non-immigrants.12 This is largely dueto a lack of knowledge about preventive health care andmammography screening,1316 fear about the procedure, orracial discrimination.17,18 Arab immigrant women are morelikely to avoid cancer screenings because of embarrassmentand fear of cancer diagnosis,19 and therefore have lowermammography rates than other groups.13 These disparities,seen in many ethnic minority groups in the United States,

    Received June 24, 2012Revised November 19, 2012Accepted April 30, 2013

  • result in increased breast cancer risk, presentation at a laterstage of disease, and increased mortality and morbidityfollowing diagnosis.5

    Over the last two decades, there has been major immigra-tion of Bosnian, Somali and Arabic speaking women fromAfrica and the Middle East.20 Health centers located ingateway communities are challenged to identify healthdisparities and intervene to improve preventive care in theserefugees. Examination of preventive cancer care among therefugees seen at the Massachusetts General Hospital ChelseaHealthCare Center (MGH Chelsea) revealed that women inthese groups had lower mammography rates than English-speaking or Spanish-speaking women at this health center.Patient navigation (PN), a novel health care role introduced

    in Harlem, New York in the 1990s, has been shown toimprove cancer screening in disadvantaged populations.2125

    We developed and implemented a linguistically and culturallytailored breast cancer screening program using patientnavigators to reach Bosnian, Somali and Arabic refugeewomen. An initial 1-year pilot demonstrated a positive impacton screening rates in the Bosnian women.26 This follow-upstudy evaluates the effect of the PN program on decreasingdisparities in breast cancer screening in three populations ofrefugee women over a 3-year period.



    The study was performed at MGH Chelsea, an urbancommunity health center (HC) affiliated with MassachusettsGeneral Hospital. Located 2 miles north of Boston, the cityof Chelsea has become home to refugees fleeing Somalia,Bosnia, and Iraq. These countries have been devastated bywar and poverty, and their residents have had limited accessto health care.27

    The first PN program to address local disparities andimprove breast care in Spanish-speaking patients wasinitiated at MGH Chelsea in 2001.28 Between 2008 and2011, Massachusetts supported a PN program to promoteprevention (including mammography) in low incomewomen aged 4065 years. Additionally, every womanwho has ever had a mammogram at MGH Chelsea receivesa yearly reminder letter from the radiology department.While all women were eligible for these existing programs,refugee patients screening rates remained significantlylower than English-speaking and Spanish-speaking womenat the same HC.


    Women were eligible for the refugee PN program if theywere 4074 years of age, self identified as speaking Serbo-

    Croatian, Somali, or Arabic, and received primary care atMGH Chelsea. Patients were excluded if they had bilateralmastectomy. Comparison groups consisted of English-speaking and Spanish-speaking women between 40 and74 years of age who were receiving care at MGH Chelseaduring the same period. All study activities were approvedby the MGH Institutional Review Board.


    We developed a refugee PN breast care training curriculum(six 2-hour sessions) for community women and HC stafffrom the three targeted populations. Navigators learned howto educate patients about breast health, explore patientsbarriers to screening, provide logistical and emotionalsupport to overcome those barriers, and how to help womenobtain screening and diagnostic mammograms when need-ed. Three PNs were hired, including a woman from theBosnian community who worked half time (0.5 FTE) andtwo outreach workers already working at the HC for 23 hper week (0.050.08 FTE) to serve as PNs for the Somaliand Arabic speaking women. PNs had no prior medicaltraining and their educational backgrounds ranged fromhigh school to college graduates. Due to turnover among thePNs, new hires received the 12 h of training on an individualbasis. Training material was revised after November, 2009 toreflect updated USPSTF guidelines.29 Culturally and linguis-tically tailored educational handouts for patients were devel-oped using Susan G. Komen material as a template. PNs andpatients from the community worked with medical interpretersto adapt materials to the culture and educational level ofpatients from targeted communities.The refugee PN program formally started in April, 2009.

    Initially, patients were mailed a letter that introduced theprogram and included our culturally and linguisticallyappropriate educational materials about breast cancerscreening. Approximately 1 week later, the PN from thesame culture and language background contacted the patientby phone or in person at MGH Chelsea. Navigatorseducated patients about preventive care and the importanceof routine mammograms, and explored each patientsbarriers to screening. Tailoring their interventions to eachindividual patients needs, the PNs helped to scheduleappointments, make reminder calls, arrange transportation,resolve insurance issues and even accompany patients to theirappointments if they were afraid or felt they were unable tocomplete the mammogram appointment on their own.26

    At the beginning of each year, an updated list of refugeewomen who were eligible for the program was generatedelectronically and PNs contacted patients who had not had amammogram in the prior year. The greatest effort wasneeded during the first screening cycle, and often requiredmultiple phone calls, an in-person meeting or home visit.Time spent with each patient varied from 1 to 8 h. In

    Percac-Lima et al.: Mammography Screening: Patient Navigation for Refugees JGIM

  • subsequent years, many previously navigated womenon