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Colonoscopies by primary-care doctors safe, study finds

“We are short of gastroenterologists. We need at least three and a half times the current number of gastroenterologists to handle the backlog in South Carolina,” said Dr. Sudha Xirasagar, associate professor of health-services policy and management in the Arnold School and the study’s lead author.

During a colonoscopy, a doctor inserts a flexible, lighted tube into the rectum and guides it into the colon, looking for abnormalities or signs of cancer. The doctor may remove pre-cancerous growths, preventing cancer from occurring, and take tissue samples.

The USC study looked at colonoscopies performed at the S.C. Medical Endoscopy Center in Columbia. The colonoscopies were performed by a primary-care physician assisted by two technicians and a nurse anesthetist. A specialist was available on site. The study showed the colonoscopies met or exceeded the standards set by gastroenterologists.

The researchers emphasized that primary-care physicians must receive training from gastroenterologists or colorectal specialists to be competent and effective. They also must develop close partnerships with specialists and have specialized screening equipment and anesthetists available.

“These are replicable processes by which a patient may receive the same screening results with primary-care doctors if those doctors follow the specialists’ guidelines and receive specialist training,” Xirasagar said.

About colorectal cancer

The colon and rectum are part of the digestive tract and together make up the large intestine. Colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon or rectum) begins as a small growth in the lining of the colon or rectum. These growths may eventually form cancerous tumors capable of preventing digestion of foods and invading other organs. It is very expensive and painful to treat once symptoms appear. At later stages, the survival rate is poor. If untreated, colorectal cancers will lead to death.

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