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FIT sees pre-pandemic bowel screening uptake increase in Scotland

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by Cancer Research UK | News

2 February 2021

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New statistics published in Scotland have shown that before the COVID-19 pandemic, uptake of bowel screening had increased.

This is good news and largely due to the introduction of the faecal immunochemical test (FIT), which is easier to complete.

These statistics, published by Public Health Scotland, show that 63% of those invited to take a bowel screening test between May 2018 to March 2020 completed it successfully.

However, this report only considers the picture up to the start of the coronavirus pandemic. This means the stats don’t cover much of the period when the bowel cancer screening programme was paused in Scotland, between March and October 2020.

“Screening has now resumed so we’d encourage anyone who is invited to participate in bowel cancer screening to return their test kit.” Lisa Cohen, Cancer Research UK’s health professional engagement relationship manager in Scotland.

Cancer Research UK’s hope is that while COVID-19 paused screening services, the disruption won’t become a permanent setback in efforts to save more lives from cancer.

Difficult decisions

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in Scotland.

Scotland was the first UK nation to introduce FIT in November 2017 and its roll out saw bowel screening uptake rise above the programme target of 60% for the first time. But last year’s stoppage is likely to lead to a decline in the number of people screened. 

Difficult decisions had to be made, but the pause of cancer screening programmes meant that around 100,000 people per month were no longer being screened for bowel, breast and cervical cancer in Scotland. This could translate to a substantial number of cancers left undetected before the programmes were reintroduced.

And while screening services have now resumed, significant challenges remain, and it will be some time before the backlog is cleared. 

As the pandemic continues, it’s essential that everything possible is done to make sure screening services continue. This must include making sure there’s capacity to ensure follow up investigations are available for anyone who needs them.

“The pandemic has meant there are delays to follow-up appointments for those with an abnormal screening result, but the NHS is working hard to reach everyone as soon as possible,” said Cohen. 

“In general, waiting times for diagnostic tests remain far too long and won’t reduce until we see long-term investment in more staff and equipment. It’s vital the backlog here is cleared as diagnosing cancer early can play a big part in successful treatment.”

The Scottish Bowel Screening Programme invites men and women aged between 50 and 74 to take part in screening every 2 years.The programme is effective because it helps doctors to diagnose bowel cancer at an early stage when it’s more treatable. 

The programme switched to using a new test – FIT – in 2017, which looks for tiny traces of blood in the sample of poo.

FIT is easier to use than the previous test because you only need to collect one poo sample instead of three. It’s also more sensitive to small amounts of blood than the previous screening test, which mean it could potentially detect more cancers early.

This is the only screening programme where the test is completed at home.

Cohen added that Cancer Research UK has been working hard with health professionals in Scotland and across the UK to reduce barriers and increase informed uptake of bowel cancer screening.

“If screening services are to be sustainable and more effective, the Scottish Government also needs to support the programme by addressing long term shortages among staff who detect cancers, especially endoscopists and pathologists.”

“Thanks to screening, the disease was caught at an early stage”

Bowel cancer survivor Iain Kerr said it was welcome news that, before the pandemic the new screening test was leading to more people completing it.

Iain, aged 65, was diagnosed with bowel cancer in January 2014, just 3 months after moving home to Helensburgh from Somerset to retire with wife Wendy.

The move meant Iain and Wendy were eligible to take part in Scotland’s bowel cancer screening programme. “To receive a cancer diagnosis was devastating but I’m grateful that, thanks to screening, the disease was caught at an early stage.” Tests revealed that Iain had bowel cancer and surgery followed.

Iain said that last year, he completed the new test for the first time and it was definitely easier to do.

“I think it’s really positive that so many more people are returning the test. I know from experience that it’s a life-saving test because, like me, if you’re diagnosed early, your treatment’s much more likely to be successful.

“This test is about saving lives and so it’s great news to see that, before the pandemic, more folk were returning it. It’s vital these screening services get back on track soon.”