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Implementation challenges and successes of a population-based colorectal cancer screening program: a qualitative study of stakeholder perspectives



Few studies describe system-level challenges or facilitators to implementing population-based colorectal cancer (CRC) screening outreach programs. Our qualitative study explored viewpoints of multilevel stakeholders before, during, and after implementation of a centralized outreach program. Program implementation was part of a broader quality-improvement initiative.


During 2008–2010, we conducted semi-structured, open-ended individual interviews and focus groups at Kaiser Permanente Northwest (KPNW), a not-for-profit group model health maintenance organization using the practical robust implementation and sustainability model to explore external and internal barriers to CRC screening. We interviewed 55 stakeholders: 8 health plan leaders, 20 primary care providers, 4 program managers, and 23 endoscopy specialists (15 gastroenterologists, 8 general surgeons), and analyzed interview transcripts to identify common as well as divergent opinions expressed by stakeholders.


The majority of stakeholders at various levels consistently reported that an automated telephone-reminder system to contact patients and coordinate mailing fecal tests alleviated organizational constraints on staff’s time and resources. Changing to a single-sample fecal immunochemical test (FIT) lessened patient and provider concerns about feasibility and accuracy of fecal testing. The centralized telephonic outreach program did, however, result in some screening duplication and overuse. Higher rates of FIT completion and a higher proportion of positive results with FIT required more colonoscopies.


Addressing barriers at multiple levels of a health system by changing the delivery system design to add a centralized outreach program, switching to a more accurate and easier-to-use fecal test, and providing educational and electronic support had both benefits and problematic consequences. Other health care organizations can use our results to understand the complexities of implementing centralized screening programs.

Peer Review reports


Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third most common non-skin cancer, and the second leading cause of cancer-related death, in the U.S. [1]. The early detection of high-risk lesions or of CRC itself through appropriate screening is associated with decreased incidence of and mortality from CRC [2-4]. Currently, recommended CRC screening modalities for average-risk patients include annual fecal occult blood testing (FOBT) or colonoscopy every 10 years, or flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years, with or without interval FOBT [5]. In addition, as a result of improved test performance and usability, in 2008, multiple professional societies endorsed the use of four types of fecal immunochemical tests (FIT) to replace guaiac FOBT for CRC screening [6].

Despite the proven benefits, CRC screening at regular intervals for age-appropriate populations remains sub-optimal in the U.S.. Although more than half of adults aged 50 and older in the U.S. have ever received a CRC screening test, millions of Americans are not receiving CRC screening at all, or are not repeating screening tests at recommended intervals [7]. Population-based screening programs that employ patient-screening reminders [8-11], provision of stool tests to complete at home [12], and provider feedback are effective for improving uptake of CRC screening [13]. Prior studies in systems in the U.S. that offer more than one type of screening test (i.e., both endoscopy and fecal testing) demonstrate that one-to-one counseling of patients by nurses, patient navigators, or health educators also modestly increase screening rates [4,14,15]. However, there are few studies [15] on system-level challenges, or on determinants of success, encountered in the process of implementing such programs.

We conducted a qualitative case study [16-18] to explore the viewpoints of multilevel stakeholders implementing a centralized population-based CRC screening program and quality-improvement initiative in an integrated health system in the U.S. between 2009 and 2011. At the study site, screening flexible sigmoidoscopy and guaiac-based FOBT were available as screening options until 2008, when the health system began offering an additional option of screening colonoscopy. Within the system, the primary care provider provides an electronic fecal test order (a process termed “in-reach”) or a referral to specialty care for flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy when seeing the patient in a clinic visit. Our previously published randomized trial [19] ( identifier: NCT00656838) comparing an automated telephone contact campaign encouraging fecal test screening to clinic-based encouragement of fecal testing (usual care) found that those in the intervention group were significantly more likely to complete a fecal test (hazard ratio, 1.31; 95% confidence interval, 1.10–1.56) compared with usual care. In 2008, the health system implemented this automated telephone contact campaign and in 2009, enabling a centralized order for a fecal test (a process termed “outreach”) and direct mailing of the kits to interested patients. The health system also implemented several related quality initiatives supporting colorectal cancer screening and switched from guaiac fecal occult blood testing to fecal immunochemical testing (FIT) around the same time. Our study used a combination of semi-structured, open-ended individual interviews and focus groups. We aimed to provide sufficient in-depth description from stakeholder groups to generate breadth and depth of information, and to maximize trustworthiness and credibility of data [20,21]. We also investigated specific barriers and facilitators of colorectal cancer screening from stakeholder perspectives at different levels within the organization, and explored unintended consequences of the program.


Study site and data systems

We conducted our qualitative study between 2008 and 2010 at Kaiser Permanente Northwest (KPNW), a not-for-profit group model health maintenance organization (HMO) with about 485,000 members in Southern Washington and the Portland, Oregon, metro area. KPNW regional electronic databases capture >95% of all medical care and pharmacy services members receive, and data are linked through each member’s health record number. A full electronic medical record (EMR) has been in place since 1996. The study design and procedures were approved by KPNW’s institutional review board, and interview participants provided written informed consent.

CRC phone-reminder program and surrounding quality-improvement activities

Our qualitative study was designed to take advantage of an already in-process change in care practices at KPNW. In 2008, the organization implemented a new CRC screening-reminder program and related quality-improvement initiatives. The reminder program used automated phone calls to encourage CRC screening for average-risk, age-appropriate members who were coming due, all identified through diagnosis and procedural codes in the electronic medical record. Details on the design and outcomes of this program are reported elsewhere [19]. Briefly, the automated reminder call was about 1 min in length and provided an overview of the benefits of CRC screening. Recipients could request fecal test kits by pressing a number via touch-tone telephone. The automated system had an algorithm for accepting calls back, leaving messages, and for reminding those who had already received a kit in the mail to complete it.

Other quality-enhancement efforts within the organization included heightened training of providers (through in-person education, decision support tools in the EMR, and evidence-based practice guidelines) highlighting CRC screening importance and methods. The organization also implemented staff financial incentives for meeting organizational target goals in CRC screening rates.

Conceptual framework for evaluating local practices in a larger context

The guiding framework for our study was the practical robust implementation and sustainability model (PRISM [22], presented in Figure 1). PRISM advocates for documenting and defining key factors or “leverage points” at multiple levels of internal and external stakeholder influence. The model considers how the external environment, intervention design, implementation infrastructure, and adopting organization (with particular emphasis on the health care teams and providers) and its patients influence program implementation and success. PRISM expands upon the RE-AIM framework [23,24], derived from work in the diffusion of innovations [25-27], and is supported by social ecology and the PRECEDE/PROCEED model [23,28]. The adaptation of PRISM for this study is illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 1
figure 1

The practical robust implementation and sustainability model (PRISM). The PRISM model for integrating research findings into practice considers how the program or intervention design, the external environment, the implementation and sustainability infrastructure, and the recipients (especially at the level of health care providers and their support staff) influence program adoption, implementation, and maintenance.

Figure 2
figure 2

A qualitative study of stakeholder assessment of a colorectal cancer screening program by PRISM domains. This adapted PRISM diagram outlines how stakeholder interviews among both the initiators and recipients of a multimodal program of colorectal cancer screening evaluated the screening program. It shows the relative roles of the stakeholder groups as initiators (leadership and management) and/or recipients (specialists, primary care providers, leaders, and managers) of the intervention. Stakeholders reflected upon the historical barriers and facilitators to colorectal cancer screening, considering characteristics of the organization itself, external environment and implementation infrastructure of the organization. They also gave input into the successes of the intervention and described remaining challenges, in relation to the organizational characteristics.

Study participants and recruitment

We gathered qualitative data from 55 participants from different levels of the organization: 8 health plan leaders, 4 program managers, 23 endoscopy specialists (15 gastroenterologists, 8 general surgeons), and 20 primary care providers (PCPs).

We identified health plan leaders and managers based on their role in the organization as a resource and program decision-maker, and/or their role in designing and implementing the CRC screening program. We invited all health plan leaders through an organizational e-mail to participate in a 45-min face-to-face interview, and provided lunch for participants. All of them agreed to participate. We interviewed four of them prior to the intervention and four of them after the intervention, to obtain perspectives over time on the anticipated and realized successes and challenges of the implementation. We also invited four managers designing and implementing the centralized CRC screening program (n = 4) to a 90-min focus group, occurring after the intervention; all of them participated.

We identified gastroenterologists and general surgeons because they conduct CRC screening endoscopy (colonoscopy and flexible sigmoidoscopy) within the organization. We obtained permission to conduct a 30-min focus group with the gastroenterologists during a regional staff meeting; attendance at the meeting was mandatory but participation in the focus group was optional (with informed consent obtained). All 15 gastroenterologists present at the meeting participated. We conducted a similar but separate focus group for the general surgeons; 8 out of 11 general surgeons present actively participated, while 3 listened but did not share in the discussion. These focus groups occurred toward the end of the intervention phase.

We identified and interviewed 20 PCPs [20,29,30] who had different practice emphases on CRC screening test type and varying overall screening rates. We generated a list of family practice (FP) and internal medicine (IM) providers who had adult patient panels in 2008 (n = 250) with at least 20 patients eligible for CRC screening (n = 246). We identified “lower” (<20th percentile) and “higher” (>80th percentile) performers based upon their 2008 CRC screening-performance rates ascertained through routine HEDIS quality measures by the health plan. We further divided the list into those who used more stool tests and those who used more endoscopy, based on proportion of completed tests. From this process, we identified a total of 102 PCPs and sent out 67 individual recruitment emails to a representative subgroup of the identified list to reach a total of 20; both PCPs and the staff recruiting and conducting the interviews were blinded to whether they fell into the “lower” or “higher” screening performance groups. Forty-one participants provided no response to the email invitation, and 6 participants indicated scheduling conflicts or lack of time as their reason for not participating.

Data collection and analysis

A trained, third-party qualitative methodologist not known to the participants [JS] conducted interviews, and interviews were audio-recorded and professionally transcribed for analysis. Focus groups were facilitated by both EL and JS, with notes taken manually by JS. Interview and focus group questions elicited information about stakeholders’ perspectives regarding barriers and facilitators to CRC screening in general, and specifically within the organization; overall reaction to the organization’s CRC screening program, including to the use of automatic reminder calls and stool tests. Questions also elicited advice on improving the CRC screening program. The research team developed and refined interview and focus group guides using an iterative approach, whereby team members regularly met to discuss themes generated by prior interviews and to consider areas of exploration for subsequent interviews [30-32]. Coauthor JS led the analyses, with guidance and input from the research team. We used a content analysis approach, aided by the use of a qualitative-research software package, ATLAS.ti 5.0 (Scientific Software Development, 1997) to code data and generate reports of coded text for analysis. We developed a coding dictionary based on the interview guide and review of the transcribed interviews. Transcribed interviews were coded by marking passages of text with phrases indicating content of the discussions. Using the report and query functions of ATLAS.ti, we reviewed coded text through a deductive process, resulting in refined themes [29,33,34].

Results and discussion

Historical barriers to CRC screening

Unclear screening test emphasis

The most commonly perceived external (non-organizational) barrier expressed was that expert opinions about the best screening option for low- or average-risk patients were inconsistent. Internal CRC screening recommendations had changed over the course of 5 years, with an emphasis on sigmoidoscopy initially, followed by an emphasis on stool testing, followed by allowance of multiple options. Health plan leaders/managers stated that there were too many screening options in the system (i.e., flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, and fecal testing), with limited guidance for providers and patients about which test to choose. Specialists and health plan leaders/managers alike perceived that PCPs, influenced by training or work culture, may promote primarily screening colonoscopies rather than stool tests or sigmoidoscopy as options for average/low-risk patients. Similarly, PCPs and some of the specialists expressed discomfort with the previous years’ focus on stool tests and flexible sigmoidoscopy as preferred screening options, rather than colonoscopy, because this emphasis did not match community norms and expectations. Primary care providers expressed that they received a “mixed-message” from the organization by being allowed to refer patients to colonoscopy to screen for CRC in average-risk patients, but then were not always supported by health plan leaders or specialists for doing so. They also said that frequent changes in the emphasis on screening options for patients created confusing expectations (Table 1).

Table 1 Historical barriers to CRC screening (n= 55)

Colonoscopy resource constraints

Stakeholders also uniformly expressed concern about limited availability of trained specialists for conducting screening colonoscopies. Surgery and gastroenterology specialists said that inappropriate referrals for colonoscopy further strained already limited colonoscopy resources. Primary care providers reported that resource constraints created challenges with patient rapport, due to having to explain and negotiate the long wait for access to a screening colonoscopy. They described as challenging working in an environment that had undergone numerous shifts in how the organization allocated CRC screening resources.

Primary care and specialty department constraints

PCPs felt specialists lacked appreciation or awareness of the time constraints and pressures they are under during a 20-min office visit, making it challenging to always thoroughly discuss with patients CRC screening importance, risk/benefits, and various screening options. The challenge of offering patients a choice in the discussion of CRC screening options compounded the problem. PCPs felt a lack of support in ensuring that patients followed through with screening completion. They felt the communication from support staff to patients about how to return completed stool test kits was inconsistent and confusing. Additionally, PCPs felt the referral process for a screening colonoscopy involved too many steps and departments, leaving room for miscommunication, misunderstanding, and lack of follow-up with the patient. Specialists acknowledged that they had historically tended to have a limited role in shaping the organizations CRC screening program.

Historical facilitators to CRC screening

Historical emphasis on prevention

Health plan leaders and managers described a historical focus on quality and prevention in the organization’s mission as a facilitator of continued efforts to improve CRC screening rates. They were spurred on by the fact that the local organization’s quality performance numbers for CRC screening had historically been lower than those in other regions, who had demonstrated improvement by adopting a more formalized and centralized outreach program. They also reported prior successes in improving screening rates for other prevention measures (e.g., mammography screening) through a centralized reminder program as a strong motivator to continue to innovate. Health plan leaders cited this example as inspiration that a sustainable and cost-effective population-based CRC screening program acceptable to both providers and patients was possible (Table 2).

Table 2 Historical facilitators to CRC screening (n= 55)

Preexisting integrated structure for dissemination of key practices

Health plan leaders cited their confidence in the abilities of key leaders, managers, and implementation groups within the integrated health system. PCPs emphasized the importance of experts in the system to facilitate CRC screening knowledge and programs. They also cited a strong trust in the skill level, training, and recommendations of endoscopy specialists in the organization. They also valued having a PCP champion within the system who could help colleagues both navigate and integrate new CRC research with organizational goals and patient preferences. Some PCPs also found that the EMR tools that alert them when CRC screening is due, or show indications of prior completed screenings, were facilitators in their screening efforts. Lastly, PCPs reported that use of support staff (medical assistants) trained in educating and motivating patients on screening and follow-up helped them to screen more patients.

Recent emphasis on increasing access to colonoscopy

Specialists identified the importance of increasing future access to colonoscopy and discussed solutions such as having general surgeons and other staff trained in conducting colonoscopies. Specialists described being motivated to support the program’s efforts because they see firsthand the consequences of colon cancer for patients. PCPs perceived a subtle organizational shift in recent years that had allowed them to more easily refer patients for screening colonoscopies, particularly if that was the patient’s preference. This, along with decreasing the wait time for screening colonoscopies, and adjusting the organization’s CRC guidelines to be more in line with the U.S. emphasis on colonoscopy, were also perceived by PCPs as important organizational changes that facilitated CRC screening.

Lessons learned: implementation successes and challenges

Automated telephonic outreach successes and challenges

Health plan leaders felt the reminder calls had helped to improve the organization’s CRC screening rates, and said that calls are an effective, sustainable resource for supporting the organization’s efforts to screen a large population. They described the reminder calls as acceptable to patients, patient-centered, friendly, and easy to follow. PCPs said the reminder program helped to decrease workload for providers and health care teams by decreasing the need for individual providers to conduct their own outreach. Challenges to successful implementation of the centralized, automated reminder program identified by health plan leaders and managers centered on the interface of the program with the electronic medical record, with Medicare and Medicaid regulations, and with population health services sending kits to patients. They recommended involving the information technology (IT) department early in order to optimally integrate automated calls with the EMR. Health plan managers identified the challenge of being adequately staffed to quickly enter orders in the EMR and get them mailed to patients who wanted a stool test. This constraint initially decreased interest and compliance in completing or returning the stool test kits. They recommended streamlining the ordering of the stool test for patients due to receive a reminder call so the order would already be in the EMR, ready to be acted upon. They also suggested automatically sending stool test kits to every person who is due for screening following the receipt of a reminder call (Tables 3 and 4a, b).

Table 3 Lessons learned: implementation successes (n= 55)
Table 4 Lessons learned: implementation challenges (n= 55)

Fecal immunochemical tests

Health plan managers felt that implementation of FIT increased patient compliance with the stool test method of screening; instructions for completing FIT were perceived as being easier for patients to follow. Yet, both health plan leaders and PCPs felt there was room for improving the readability of instructions and protocols for distribution of kits; for example, some kits distributed in clinic were returning to the lab without proper patient identification labels. Health plan leaders felt that the transition to FIT further increased the organization’s CRC screening rate from prior years. PCPs and health plan managers described how ease of FIT completion made discussion about CRC screening easier and more efficient. Additionally, PCPs said that increased test sensitivity of FIT has raised their enthusiasm for, and trust in, stool test screening. Specialists expressed enthusiasm about having a centralized screening program, but also ambivalence about prioritizing fecal testing over colonoscopy.

Communication about organizational screening approach

All three stakeholder groups felt the organization had improved its communication so to provide a unified message to providers to encourage and discuss FIT screening as an option, and offer screening colonoscopy if the patient preferred this option. Nonetheless, all stakeholder groups felt there were still some providers who believed that colonoscopy is the only acceptable method for CRC screening for average-risk patients. Health plan leaders and PCPs both felt the organization continues to lack effective and clear methods to communicate the organization’s CRC screening approach to all providers. Specialists said there was a need for communication to help staff see the screening program as an integrated service involving input and effort from multiple departments such as surgery, gastroenterology, primary care, and oncology. PCPs and health plan leaders identified the helpfulness of education on resource stewardship and on feedback of providers’ screening tendencies. Yet, health plan leaders expressed the desire for more effective ways to communicate and educate providers about resource stewardship issues and evidence-based outcomes as they pertain to CRC screening.

Concern about screening duplication

There was concern from all three stakeholder groups that the current CRC program may be creating some screening duplication, contributing to inefficient use of resources. Health plan leaders endorsed the multimodal approach to offering screening options to patients (i.e., at patient visits (in-reach) and via automated calls (outreach) as important attributes of improved screening rates. Yet, health plan leaders and PCPs identified that the lack of integration or documentation of the reminder calls in the EMR created challenges by increasing providers’ chances of duplication of effort or service. PCPs desired clearer prompting through the EMR about patient screening status (in particular, whether they had received an automated call) during the clinic visit. Specialists felt strongly that improving EMR alerts and directions for providers/support staff could also prevent patients who had a recent normal colonoscopy from receiving a FIT. PCPs and specialists found overall documentation of prior colonoscopy results to be inconsistent and confusing, as they could not always discern what were recommended next steps for future screening. Specialists were frustrated that some patients were still inappropriately screened, such as the very elderly or hospice patients. Concern about screening duplication generated questions where evidence-based practices and policies were unclear. For example, specialists and health plan leaders described a lack of clarity on protocols for patients with a negative FIT who requested a screening colonoscopy within the same year.

Ongoing need for education

PCPs and health plan leaders both underlined the need to improve patient education regarding CRC screening importance and options. PCPs requested more consistent educational tools to help patients navigate screening information and options (e.g., visual aids for discussion, exam-room posters, and patient handouts). Specialists emphasized the need to proactively educate patients about all available CRC screening choices. PCPs and health plan leaders agreed on the need to increase and standardize training of support staff in order to expand staff roles in CRC screening, since support staff are often the ones who see patients first and place the screening order in the system; they suggested enabling preordering of the screening test during rooming procedures.

The need to increase staff and colonoscopy resources and access

The greatest challenge to implementing FIT, as identified by health plan leaders and specialists, was unintentionally creating resource and access issues with colonoscopy services due to the increased compliance with, and sensitivity of, the test. Health plan leaders and PCPs felt that there is still a need for additional highly trained staff to provide endoscopy services, including colonoscopies. PCPs advocated for the organization to train more mid-level providers to conduct colonoscopies to assist with issues of access. Specialists emphasized their desire for patients to be able to self-refer for CRC screening, similar to the breast cancer screening program already in place. Self-referral would allow the patient to choose any of the tests available and have direct access to scheduling, rather than requesting a referral from a primary care provider. At the time of this publication, the health system does not offer self-referral for endoscopy.


Prior studies have evaluated implementation of colorectal cancer screening programs within medically underserved populations in the U.S. [35-37], whereas this study specifically focuses on the effects of an innovative quality-improvement program to improve screening rates among members of an integrated health plan that serves mostly insured individuals. The multimodal quality-improvement approach was aligned with the PRISM framework, [22] which emphasizes implementation of multiple changes at once (or serially) while specifically taking into account the strengths and needs of the delivery system; Table 5 summarizes the facilitators and barriers to implementation of the program, for each of the PRISM domains. A key aspect of the program was a centralized automated telephone calling campaign, which we demonstrated previously to independently increase screening rates about 6.5% [19]. During the 2 years of implementation of the entire quality-improvement program, from 2008 to 2010, colorectal cancer screening rates increased from 54.8% to 65.9%. They have continued to rise, and in 2013 reached 80% or above.

Table 5 Reported facilitators and barriers to program implementation, by PRISM domains

Unique to this study setting was a preexisting sophisticated electronic medical record (EMR), which integrates data from all departments and all sites of care. Stakeholders attributed screening increases in part to implementation of clinical decision support in the EMR, which allowed notification in the chart of patients who appeared overdue for screening, and enabled distribution of FIT kits from different points of clinical care. While outreach efforts from clinic support staff (through reminder letters) were already underway prior to the implementation, the addition of the centralized automated telephone outreach program enabled multimodal communication with, and reminding of, patients, which has been shown to enhance screening rates in prior studies [38-44]. Yet, participants also reported a continued need to refine the integration of the program with the system, both for outreach and for ensuring completion of stool tests.

Participants stated that changing from guaiac fecal occult blood test cards to the FIT test, a single-sample fecal immunochemical test with implementation of a centralized outreach program, provided much-needed clarity about organizational priorities. Prior to implementation, administrators expressed that it was difficult to know which screening test to prioritize for promotion across the system. U.S. guidelines do not strongly recommend one test over another [5,6]. Even with improved screening rates, stakeholders in different departments expressed continued ambivalence and disagreement about how to communicate about the different options available to patients for colorectal cancer screening (e.g., fecal tests and endoscopy). Some specialists and PCPs wanted to make screening colonoscopy more readily available to interested patients (e.g., through self-referral). Communication with program champions in the system helped resolve some of these disagreements, and has been described as a key facilitator of CRC program implementation [35,45]. Ongoing discussions about the changing landscape of CRC screening evidence and best practices will likely continue to be important in the coming years with the completion of large trials comparing FIT to colonoscopy [46,47].

An unintended consequence of program implementation was more screening duplication. Stakeholders reported that the ease of access and ubiquitous distribution of FIT led to some waste of fecal test kits and also to some over-screening. This finding is a downside to the benefit of achieving high screening rates by using multimodal reminders. PCPs and health plan managers reported that some patients received several kits at different points of care, because of electronic alerts indicating that he/she was overdue for screening. Those with low screening adherence would sometimes lose kits or would keep more than one at home, incomplete. Prior studies have targeted non-adherent patients by employing tailored navigation through telephone outreach by a nurse or medical assistant, though success of this approach has been variable, and widespread implementation would need to consider cost-benefit tradeoffs [48,49]. Screening overuse stemmed from patients who were willing to screen whenever prompted, sometimes completing more than one kit per year, or completing a colonoscopy less than 10 years after a prior negative colonoscopy. Stakeholders reported that incomplete documentation in the EMR of prior colonoscopy outside the health plan contributed to over-screening of this nature, which has been a previously reported challenge in other systems [50]. In theory, additional clinical alerts [45,50-54] at the point of ordering a fecal test kit would address both the duplication in fecal test kits and inadequate documentation of prior colonoscopy. However, computer-alert “fatigue” should be a consideration in implementing additional electronic prompting and oversight. Previous research has shown that complex clinical decision support initiatives to support CRC screening can result in a subsequent decline in quality outcomes due to this phenomenon [55].

Lastly, in spite of the focus of the program being fecal tests, stakeholders at all levels discussed the ongoing need to expand colonoscopy resources, namely, increasing the number of endoscopists and the dedicated facilities and staff for offering this procedure. Both administrators and specialists had concerns about limitations in colonoscopy resources, and how the organization should manage these resources while still offering screening to all eligible patients. Resource constraints are likely to remain an ongoing concern in colorectal cancer screening programs [56,57].

Limitations and strengths

Our study could not discern whether stakeholders’ responses represent the feelings of non-interviewed clinicians, specialists, and health plan managers across the Kaiser Permanente system. However, responses were sufficiently consistent that we could identify themes and patterns across different groups. Another limitation may be that the lessons learned in this system, which has internal practice guidelines and a sophisticated electronic medical record, may be difficult to apply in systems lacking those attributes. However, ~80 million people in the U.S. receive care from an HMO, which likely have similar organizational attributes as those described here. Two strengths of this qualitative study are that we obtained a variety of viewpoints through multiple interviews, and that we elicited responses at a variety of time points relative to the quality interventions. We also used a prespecified interview guide, a trained interviewer, and a repeated, iterative process of reliability-checking among members of the research team.


Our analyses of multiple stakeholder viewpoints about quality-improvement efforts to raise CRC screening rates yielded valuable information about successes, and remaining challenges, to successful implementation of a reminder program in a highly integrated U.S. managed health care system. CRC screening rates improved 10% during program implementation and continue to rise. The implementation program capitalized on historical facilitators (an integrated health system with internal guidelines and a sophisticated electronic medical record), while also removing some historical barriers to screening (organizational resource, staff, and time burden; patient non-compliance). Success was due in large part to the activation of three different domains within the PRISM framework: changing the delivery system design through centralizing screening efforts (implementation infrastructure); switching to a more accurate and feasible fecal test (external environment); and providing educational and electronic support (recipients of intervention). The combination of these actions resulted in a successful and sustained improvement in CRC screening rates.

Health plan leaders, PCPs, specialists, and support staff in other health systems can use our results to address remaining barriers to raising CRC screening rates. All the stakeholders we interviewed acknowledged the complexity of understanding and applying the scientific evidence for CRC screening, and expressed a need for ongoing education of both providers and patients about organizational emphases on CRC screening. They also wanted to understand, and have input into, the scientific reasoning informing an organization’s choices in recommending one test over others for people at average risk of colon cancer. Further refinement of the stool test distribution system should focus on reducing duplication of test dissemination, and installing new procedures for identifying and documenting prior endoscopies done outside of the system. Perhaps the greatest challenge to the system we studied is that increases in FIT testing, and the greater sensitivity of FIT, have led to greater demand for colonoscopies. Ultimately, decision-makers will need to re-examine the relative benefits of joint informed decision-making (specifically regarding patient choice of screening test) and weigh them against the benefits of centralized screening efforts through a single test (e.g., fecal immunochemical testing), and concentrate their resources accordingly.



Colorectal cancer


Primary care physician


Fecal occult blood testing


Fecal immunochemical test


Health maintenance organization


Kaiser Permanente Northwest


Electronic medical record


Practical robust implementation and sustainability model


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The authors would like to thank the following individuals whose contributions made this research and manuscript possible: Mary Rix and Lucy Fulton for the overall project management; Gail Morgan for the human subject submission and recruitment coordination for stakeholder data collection; Dixie Sweo and Sam Peterson for the reference and formatting assistance; Lisa Fox and Lin Neighbors for the graphic assistance with the figures and tables; and Leslie Bienen and Jill Pope for the assistance with reviewing and editing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth G Liles.

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The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors’ contributions

EGL, JLS, ACF, DMM, NP, AGR, and DHS conceived the concept and design of the manuscript; JLS and ACF developed the interview and focus group guides; JLS acquired the qualitative data; EGL and JLS analyzed and interpreted the data; EGL, JLS, and AFC drafted the manuscript; EGL, JLS, ACF, DMM, NP, AGR, and DHS critically revised the manuscript for important intellectual content; NP and AGR conducted the statistical analysis oversight for recruitment categories; ACF obtained the funding and overall oversight of study. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Liles, E.G., Schneider, J.L., Feldstein, A.C. et al. Implementation challenges and successes of a population-based colorectal cancer screening program: a qualitative study of stakeholder perspectives. Implementation Sci 10, 41 (2015).

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