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Bringing Care to Communities: Penn Medicine Partnerships Aim to Decentralize Cancer Screenings

Rev. Miles in his office at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.
Rev. Miles in his office at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.

Leroy Miles has somewhere to be. 

In fact, he has about a dozen places to be, but in speaking with him, the Associate Pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church projects equal parts calm and confidence to pair with the urgency of the event where he is…everywhere, from greeting community members to kicking off a panel discussion on clinical trials.   

The Know Your Numbers event, a mixture that Reverend Miles lovingly refers to as “part man cave, part fellowship event” is packed with activities that “most of these guys would be doing on a Saturday, anyway.” The guys in question are about 1,300 men who worship at Enon, in North Philadelphia, or are connected to the church in some way. They are here to get haircuts, grab lunch, learn about city resources, meet the Philadelphia 76ers mascot and listen to a little music. 

They are also getting their recommended health screenings for prostate cancer and kidney disease and engaging in other preventative health measures. The importance is notable as Black men are twice as likely to die from prostate cancer as their white and Hispanic male counterparts. In addition, African Americans are more than three times as likely and Hispanics or Latinos are and 1.3 times more likely to have kidney failure compared to white Americans. 

“We were talking about health disparities in the mid-2000s. Black men were at the top of many lists that we should not have been on,” Miles said. “We looked at the issues and realized, ‘they won't go out.’ But, if we bring the resources to them, they will absolutely take advantage of them.”

Carmen Guerra
Carmen E. Guerra, MD, MSCE, FACP

The event—in its 12th year—is one of many where Penn Medicine has partnered to bring preventative care into communities, reaching outside the walls of hospitals and clinics to offer care in a way that, ideally, gets more care to those who need it.  

For Carmen E. Guerra, MD, MSCE, FACP, the Ruth C. and Raymond G. Perelman Professor of Medicine, vice chair of Diversity and Inclusion in the Department of Medicine, and associate director of Diversity and Outreach for the Abramson Cancer Center, this event is one of many that didn’t start today but in 2020. 

“Among the things that closed during the pandemic were cancer screenings, and there was a lot of discussion around the potential to see 10,000 new cancers over the next decade, just from the interruption in breast and colon cancer screenings, alone,” Guerra said. Not much later, Chadwick Boseman, the star of Black Panther, died from complications due to colon cancer—an event that would serve as a marker in the relationship with Rev. Miles. 

“There was this sense of fear almost,” Guerra recalled, “that if this person with these resources could die from colorectal cancer, what chance do we stand out here in Northwest Philadelphia?” 

Partners Connect Care After Community Cancer Screenings 

“COVID showed us how big those gaps and disparities can be in getting care, and we realized that partnerships and collaboration are how this can really work,” Miles said, pointing to another event that drew 1,400 women for the day, along with partnering with NephCure and LabCorp on testing for a rare kidney disease, APL-01. 

As he speaks, men are participating in urinalysis a floor above. Urine samples are tested on site and, if necessary, men with concerning results are referred to a nephrologist down the hall before receiving results days later. Any of the men who do not have a primary care physician are referred to a federally funded care center in the city, a cycle of care that makes the process much more streamlined for those who need it. Phlebotomists also draw blood for prostate cancer screenings. 

“We all have to work together,” Miles said. “We're trying to close every gap possible and just showing that when we work together, we improve outcomes.”

Theo Matlock, a member of the church, echoed the feelings of support and fellowship. 

“It’s been a blessing. There is an old saying: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Any time an individual can have more knowledge about their health is to their benefit,” Matlock said. “Hopefully and prayerfully there will be men that will leave from this event today that will take this information and take the appropriate steps to have a healthier life.”

One Phase of Many in Connecting Care with Communities 

Theo Matlock taking part in a screening.
Theo Matlock taking part in a screening.

The partnership between Penn Medicine and Enon is one of many that continued to grow, yielding additional events and incorporating new ideas.

During 2020, when the need increased for food and school supply distribution drives, Guerra’s team took the same approach, asking if the person was up to date on their colon cancer screening. If not, they were given an at-home testing kit called a FIT (fecal immunochemical test) kit. 

“They ended up taking the kits, and more importantly, they returned them. We had around an 80 percent screening rate,” Guerra said. “It was kind of the ideal, where both partners are coming together, making observations together, bringing feedback from the community, and responding together.”

Moving through 2023, the partnerships solidified into a familiar rhythm. In June alone, Guerra noted that her team has received 25 completed health questionnaires and screened 24 patients for prostate cancer. Two of those screenings were abnormal and both patients received calls to discuss the appropriate next steps.

“A major value of reaching out to people in their communities is that Penn Medicine’s clinicians can help so many more people than they can in a typical day in a clinic,” Guerra said, recalling one colleague who saw about 100 patients in a day spent at a recent health fair. 

“That is a great example of what we would call ‘frictionless’ care and also is an example of one takeaway from the pandemic,” she said. “We can offer screenings in a way where someone doesn’t have to navigate a complex system, [because instead] we can bring the screenings to them.”

The goal is to remove pressures like scheduling time, finding childcare, taking time off of work or getting transportation. Another goal of the events was to raise awareness of prostate cancer screenings through a partnership between the Philadelphia Flyers and Abramson Cancer Center. 

A pair of videos were produced through the partnership: one aimed at promoting the community events, and another was shown at the events. In an effort to keep learning about what strategies are most effective at raising awareness and improving attitudes and intention to screen for prostate cancer, the event video was accompanied by pre- and post-video questionnaires. The team found that the video increased knowledge of prostate cancer and many viewers showed intention to screen. In addition, 27 attendees underwent screening with Penn’s mobile phlebotomists at the events.

Looking ahead, Guerra is forging additional partnerships to reach new communities, such as farm workers in Chester County and New Jersey and many other communities in Philadelphia. Her team is working with the Guatemalan and Mexican Consulates in Philadelphia along with Puentes De Salud, a nonprofit organization, as well as St. Joseph’s University, to reach Spanish-speaking communities, and with church groups in South Philadelphia to reach Asian-American and Asian immigrant communities there. 

As partnerships like these continue to grow and add collaborators, the primary goal remains: Just like Rev. Miles, each of the partners has somewhere to be.  Working together in those places and with these communities is critical in delivering on that mission of caring for communities where they are. 


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