White House taps Chattanooga lung screening bus in goal to cut cancer deaths in half

A Chattanooga bus that takes a mobile CT scanner to test for lung cancer in rural and underserved communities in Tennessee and Georgia has gained the attention of the White House as part of President Joe Biden's goal to reduce cancer deaths by at least 50% over the next 25 years.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death, killing more people each year than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined, according to the American Cancer Society, and Tennessee has one of the highest rates of new lung cancer cases each year.

But Dr. Rob Headrick, chief of thoracic surgery at CHI Memorial, said in a phone interview the chance of lung cancer survival improves dramatically when the disease is caught and treated early. That's why CHI Memorial came up with a way to bring lung cancer screening technology and education to those who would otherwise struggle to access the service.

The "Breathe Easy" mobile lung CT coach, which started in Chattanooga in 2018, was recognized as part of Biden's reignited Cancer Moonshot to "jump-start progress on the nearly 10 million screenings in the United States that were missed as a result of the pandemic, and to work to ensure that all Americans equitably benefit from the tools we have to prevent, detect and diagnose cancer," according to a White House news release.

Headrick recently returned to Chattanooga after meeting with other leaders, providers and cancer researchers in Washington to share how the project got up and running so it could serve as a model for other health systems across the country.

"They recognize that simply focusing on lung screening, which is doable today, will get us a significant part of the way towards that goal," he said.

In addition to helping connect patients to needed care, Headrick said screening for lung cancer is money well spent because detecting lung cancer earlier makes it less costly to treat.

"My father died of a sudden heart attack, and a lot of people with coronary heart disease may never even reach the hospital, but 100% of lung cancer patients are going to come to a hospital for care," Headrick said. "For stage three or four (lung cancer), you're looking at treatment that's millions of dollars. It's toxic, there's a lot of complexity to it and it is unlikely to save their life."

(READ MORE: Doctor pushes for prevention, detection to end Chattanooga's most deadly form of cancer)

While mobile health care isn't new, Headrick said it took several years to figure out how to take a piece of technology as heavy and sensitive as a CT machine on the road every day to different locations in rural and mountainous areas.

Donors helped get the project started, and the technology turned out to be more robust than officials thought. The vehicle itself took on a lot of wear and tear, he said.

"So we took all those lessons learned and went back to the drawing board and used it to create what's now a commercially reproducible bus that has all the same tools in place with an ability to perform up to standards for a 10-year lifespan," Headrick said.

The next step was to scale up to reach more people, but the pandemic struck. What at first was another hurdle actually benefited the mobile screening effort, Headrick said, because people who were avoiding hospitals out of fear of COVID-19 were much more willing to be screened by the mobile unit.

Headrick said the project ultimately gained the attention of the White House once the group partnered with the private sector to build a second bus.

"There's a way of using these private-public partnerships to focus on a goal that gets us back to doing what America does best," he said. "And what better example than having Chattanooga sit at that table and help lead one piece of it. For me, it was probably, professionally, one of the most exciting days of my career."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.