Study seeks to learn from breast and cervical screening programmes to improve uptake of bowel cancer tests

Published: 26 May 2015

Bowel cancer is the UK’s second-biggest cancer killer, accounting for 10% of all cancer deaths, yet only just over half of women eligible for the screening programme in Scotland take part.

Bowel cancer is the UK’s second-biggest cancer killer, accounting for 10% of all cancer deaths, yet only just over half of women eligible for the screening programme in Scotland take part.

The 58% uptake rate for bowel screening among women contrasts with participation rates of 74% and 71% for breast and cervical screening respectively.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow have secured a grant of £84,000 from the National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative to find out why the take-up rate for bowel cancer is much lower and what can be learned from other screening programmes to improve participation.

Dr Katie Robb in the Institute of Health & Wellbeing, who is leading the project with Professor Colin McCowan of the Robertson Centre for Biostatistics, said: “We know that screening is an effective way to detect cancer early in its development before symptoms may have appeared, and catching it at an earlier stage can significantly reduce deaths.

“Public support for screening programmes is high, with surveys in the US and the UK showing 90% of people in favour, but actual uptake of screening opportunities varies dramatically.

“It is important to understand why bowel cancer screening is failing to achieve the same uptake rates as breast or cervical screening.”

Bowel cancer screening is a much more recent addition to the cancer screening programmes in Scotland, having been introduced in 2007 for anyone aged 50-74, while breast and cervical screening both began in 1988.

However, participation rates for the latter achieved participation rates of more than 70% within a few years. Bowel cancer screening comprises a home-testing kit, called a faecal occult blood test.

The test involves wiping small samples of stool on a piece of card which is then put in a hygienically sealed envelope and sent to a lab for testing. The sample is checked for traces of blood that might indicate a cancerous state in the bowel.

Dr Robb said: “Bowel cancer screening is a test you do yourself at home and so people may be slightly less familiar with this approach. 

“Our study will look at the various factors – socio-economic, demographic, or relating to medical differences – that might be barriers to participation and consider new ways of encouraging people to take the opportunity to consider benefiting from a potentially life-saving intervention.”

Dr Jodie Moffat, head of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: “There are plans to introduce a new, easier-to-use bowel screening test across Scotland within the next few years – and that, together with what we learn from this study, could help encourage more people to take part. It’s important that people have the information they need when deciding whether to take part in bowel screening, and nothing discourages them if they want to go ahead. Screening can detect bowel cancer early, and when it’s diagnosed at the earliest stage more than nine in 10 patients survive the disease for at least five years.”

The researchers will use data on screening invitations and uptake from the NHS Health Scotland’s Screening Programmes for women in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board region to explore differences in uptake for bowel versus breast and cervical screening services.

Notes to Editors

The National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative research call was funded by Cancer Research UK; Department of Health England; Economic and Social Research Council; Health & Social Care Research and Development Division, Public Health Agency, Northern Ireland; National Institute for Social Care and Health Research, Wales; and the Scottish Government.  The award is being administered by Cancer Research UK.

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First published: 26 May 2015

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