Patients missing crucial bowel cancer testsScreening programme age limit is lower in England

13 September 2006

More people in England may die from bowel cancer than in Scotland and Wales because the NHS screening programme for England has a lower age limit.

That’s the damning verdict of Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin (DTB), the independent journal for doctors, published by Which?.

A screening programme will be introduced in Scotland from August 2007 for people aged 50 to 74, and one is also due in Wales.

But the English programme, which is being rolled out over the next three years, targets only those between the ages of 60 and 69.

Bowel health screening

DTB says the programme in England might be less effective in reducing deaths from bowel (colorectal) cancer because it will miss some people who may have the disease.

DBT Editor Dr Ike Iheanacho said: ‘It is unfair that, depending on where you live, you may miss out on crucial health screening – national screening of the population should mean just that – with the same criteria for all. 

‘It is also worth noting that if an age cut-off of 69 years (as chosen for England), rather than 74 years, had been used in one of the major bowel cancer screening trials, 25 per cent of detectable cancers would have been missed.

‘It is worrying that the screening programme in England appears so at odds with the evidence from the major population screening trials.’

Screening success

Around 16,000 people die from colorectal cancer each year in the UK. But screening people has been shown to reduce the number who die from the disease by around 16 per cent.

Dr Iheanacho added: ‘While it is good news that UK screening programmes are being introduced, these must be properly resourced and supported to ensure they are effective.'

In the March issue of Which? we revealed that the bowel cancer screening programme – which was due to start the following month – still hadn't been finalised.

Health chiefs later confirmed that the programme would be delayed for three months because of financial wrangling.