Kansas City’s reputation as a life sciences center just got another “booster shot.” Local physicians recently established the Midwest Health Foundation, a non-profit entity dedicated to educating the medical community and public on digestive health and liver disease.

Currently in the planning phases, the foundation’s initial programs will include seminars for patients as well as for continuing medical education (CME) credits. Later on, the foundation hopes to partner with area specialists, medical schools, treatment facilities, physician organizations, and others on a variety of educational programs.

Dr. Marc Taormina, director of the foundation, cites the group’s mission as helping primary care physicians and the public
better understand the importance of screening for preventable diseases, such as Barrett’s esophagus, colorectal cancer, 
and liver disease. Life-saving screening tests include a number of new technology options that may be more appropriate 
for some patients than others. These include capsule endoscopy or PillCamTM — a pill-size capsule with a tiny embedded camera that snaps pictures of the esophagus and small bowel as it passes through the digestive system — which can be administered in less time with no sedation.

Barrett’s esophagus is a somewhat uncommon disorder that results from untreated GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), a condition that causes acid from the stomach to chronically leak into the lower esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus has been linked to esophageal cancer, which can spread to lymph nodes and other organs. Identifying those at risk for this disorder and monitoring their digestive health through endoscopy tests can prevent disease and save lives.

Much more common and more threatening is colorectal cancer, the #2 cancer killer (after lung cancer). Those most at risk are adults over 50 who develop polyps (small growths on the inner wall of the colon or rectum), some of which may become cancerous if not removed. Over 90 percent of those with colorectal cancer are diagnosed after age 50, and finding and removing these “suspect” polyps typically eliminates the risk. However, half of adults fail to get the screening tests they need to avoid this highly preventable cancer, according to Dr. Taormina.

Other risks involve diseases of the liver, the largest organ in the body and one of the most essential, processing everything we eat, drink, breathe, and apply to the skin. The American Liver Foundation reports that over 30 million Americans (one in 10) are affected by liver diseases, including hepatitis — which accounts for 15,000–18,000 deaths each year.

The Foundation’s role in educating people about digestive disorders is really a two-fold endeavor,” says Dr. Taormina. “First, it’s vital that the entire community understand the importance of having regular screening tests to identify who is at risk for these preventable and treatable diseases. Second, there needs to be a greater understanding of each test’s strengths and limitations. For example, the PillCamTM is an exciting new option, but it might not be the best solution for everyone. If the results indicate suspect cells, the patient would need a traditional endoscopy to accurately locate and biopsy those cells for further testing, which means having to come back for a second procedure on a different day.”

Additionally, Taormina cites confusion about flexible sigmoidoscopy (recommended every five years for those over 50) 
versus colonoscopy (recommended every 10 years for those over 50) and virtual colonoscopy (a newer CT scanning procedure) — all three of which require the same preparation process of completely emptying the bowel.

Dr. Taormina put the three tests in perspective, explaining, “Sigmoidoscopy tests for irregularities in the rectum and lower part of the colon, but does not examine the upper part of the colon. In contrast, the more thorough colonoscopy is better indicated for many patients. African Americans, for example, are a group statistically more at risk for colon cancer; for them (and many others) pre-cancerous polyps tend to appear only where the colonoscopy can ‘see’ them and go undetected with sigmoidoscopy. Many people find virtual colonoscopy a more appealing option than the other two tests because there’s no “scope” involved,” Taormina continued. “If a polyp is discovered, they have to go through the whole preparation process again and come back for a colonoscopy to remove it.

If they had chosen the colonoscopy in the first place, it would be all taken care of with just one preparation and procedure.”

Promoting Digestive Health Education