GI cancer

Bowel screening rates: the best and worst areas

While bowel cancer screening rates remain at around 41% nationally, some ‘outlier’ regions, particularly in remote areas, have as few as 7% of the eligible population being screened, new figures shows.

Participation rates for the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program for the target population of people between the ages of 50-74 were 41.3% in 2016-17, according to the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare.

This meant that nationally 1.7 million of the 4.1 million people who were mailed an immunochemical faecal occult blood test (iFOBT)  returned the completed tests for analysis.

Participation rates were slightly higher in women (43%) than men (39%), and were highest for people aged 70–74 (52.6%) and lowest in the 50-54 years age group (29.8%).

Tasmania and South Australia were the states with the highest average participation rates for bowel cancer screening, at around 46.5%, where the NT had an average rate of 28.1%.

The Top End also had the lowest rate of any local region in the country, with East Arnhem having only 7% of eligible people undergo screening. In contrast people in the Fleurieu-Kangaroo Island region of SA topped the country with a bowel cancer screening participation rate of 53.6%.

Highest rate South Coast 46.8% Gippsland 53.1% Bribie 48.0% Manjimup 50.9% Hobart S/W 52.4% Fleurieu 53.6% Weston Creek 48.4% Darwin 30.8%
Lowest rate Mt Druitt 27.8% Melbourne City 34.9% Outback 25.9% Kimberley 22.6% Brighton 39.6% Playford 36.9% Gunghalin 41.5% East Arnhem 7.0%


Bowel Cancer Australia CEO Julien Wiggins said it was disappointing to see bowel screening rates ‘stagnant’ at just over 40%, and also that many people with positive FOBT results were facing long waits for follow up colonoscopy.

“The best screening test is the one that gets done, provided a positive test is followed up with timely colonoscopy to complete the screening process,” he said.

About 69,000 Australians returned a positive screening test in 2017, giving an 8% screening positivity rate. Of those who received a positive test, 66% reported a follow-up diagnostic colonoscopy.

Mr Wiggins said it was concerning that for those people who received a positive test result, the latest data revealed lengthy colonoscopy waitlists that were well outside of medical guidelines recommendations in nearly every state and territory.

“Delays to colonoscopy have the potential to undermine the objective of the Program, which is currently costing taxpayers $74 million a year,” said Mr. Wiggins.

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