Early detection can dramatically improve patient outcomes in lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer deaths for both men and women. But patients can’t access preventive screenings they don’t know about — and new data indicates that many high-risk patients remain unaware of the option.

More than half of current smokers — 54% — know little or nothing about lung-cancer screening, according to data from Phreesia Life Sciences, which recently surveyed more than 14,000 current and former smokers as they checked in for their doctors’ appointments. In fact, only 28% of survey participants with any smoking history — many of whom also are considered high-risk—said they were aware of lung-cancer screening.

That’s one of the biggest reasons that only about 24% of lung-cancer diagnoses are made before the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, explains Nancy Ibach, associate vice president of U.S. Oncology at Merck. “Right now, [lung-cancer screening] is not that known. People don’t understand what the screening process is. But with more awareness, and people realizing that it is not an invasive procedure, this could help us help others.”

To get the word out, Merck is developing educational outreach and partnering with organizations that can amplify its message, Ibach says. As one example, Merck’s “Do It For Yourself” campaign encourages patients to see their doctor if they have a persistent, unexplained cough or shortness of breath. The campaign emphasizes that 60% of patients who are diagnosed early with lung cancer survive for at least five years, according to the American Lung Association — versus only 6% of patients who are diagnosed at later stages of the disease.

But lack of awareness is only one hurdle to lung-cancer screening, Phreesia survey data shows. Of the 28% of current or former smokers who said they were aware of screening, just 5% have been screened for lung cancer in the past 12 months, and only 11% plan to be screened in the next 12 months.

Emotional factors sometimes keep patients from getting screened, Ibach points out. “There are a lot of feelings of shame and denial due to the stigma of smoking, and that’s a barrier that we have to help overcome as well,” she says.

Within underserved communities, concerns about access to cancer screenings contribute to low screening rates, too. As a result, these patient populations tend to suffer worse outcomes because their cancer is not diagnosed until late in their illness.

To help combat these and other barriers to access, Merck and other industry players have joined the American Cancer Society’s “Get Screened” initiative, whose $30 million fundraising goal is meant to ensure that all Americans have access to recommended cancer screenings.

Yet pharma can do even more to help underserved patient populations, who are often especially hesitant to trust physicians, Ibach explains. Drugmakers should partner with local organizations that can “get into the community and deliver this message from a trusted source,” she says. “We really want to make sure that we can find and get access to screenings for everyone so that everyone has a fair opportunity to treat and survive cancer.”