Guidance

Bowel cancer screening: programme overview

Information on the programme, including commissioning, quality assurance, education and training.

Public information about bowel cancer screening is available on the NHS website. Members of the public can call the bowel cancer screening helpline on the Freephone number 0800 707 60 60.

It is an individual’s choice whether or not to have screening. Individuals can opt out if they do not want to receive screening invitations.

Public Health England (PHE) is committed to reducing inequalities and variation in participation to help make sure everyone has fair and equal access to screening services.

PHE has also published information about patient confidentiality in population screening programmes.

Target population

Bowel cancer screening is offered every 2 years to men and women aged 60 to 74. People older than this can ask for a screening kit every 2 years by calling the Freephone number 0800 707 60 60.

An additional one-off test called bowel scope screening is being introduced in England for men and women at the age of 55.

In August 2018, ministers agreed that in the future bowel cancer screening in England will start at the age of 50. PHE and the NHS are looking at how this can be achieved.

Condition screened for

Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel. Depending on where it starts, bowel cancer is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer. The NHS website has more information, including:

  • symptoms of bowel cancer
  • causes of bowel cancer
  • treatment for bowel cancer

Screening tests

Guaiac fecal occult blood test

People eligible for bowel cancer screening get an invitation letter, along with an information leaflet explaining screening and its possible benefits and risks.

About a week later, the programme sends a guaiac fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) kit with instructions on how to use it at home. Results are sent out 2 weeks after the laboratory receives the completed kit.

The screening programme offers individuals with an abnormal screening result a colonoscopy.

The quality assurance guidelines for colonoscopy provide guidance on standards and performance indicators in colonoscopy.

Faecal immunochemical test

A new kit called the faecal immunochemical test (FIT) is being introduced in England from late 2018. It will eventually replace the gFOBT test.

Bowel scope test

Bowel scope screening (also called a flexible sigmoidoscopy or ‘flexisig’) is an additional test for people aged 55.

Bowel scope screening is being introduced by the NHS, but is not yet available everywhere. Bowel scope standard operating procedures offer guidance for providers of bowel scope screening.

Evidence base

Bowel cancer screening is one of 11 NHS national population screening programmes available in England.

The UK National Screening Committee (UK NSC) makes recommendations to ministers in the 4 UK countries on all aspects of population screening. It ensures that screening provides more benefit than harm, at a reasonable cost to the NHS.

Recommendations are based on internationally recognised criteria and a rigorous evidence review process.

Read the UK NSC recommendation on bowel cancer screening.

Uptake

PHE collects routine data to monitor the uptake of bowel cancer screening.

Requests for screening data and research

All requests for screening data need to be approved by the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme Research Advisory Committee.

PHE also has terms of reference for NHS population screening programme research advisory committees.

Commissioning

All bowel cancer screening commissioners must follow the service specification and use the supporting documents to ensure a fit for purpose programme is set up, and meets the required standards.

Quality assurance

The role of the screening quality assurance service is to:

The programme specific operating model for quality assurance of the bowel cancer screening programme should be read in conjunction with the operating model for PHE screening quality assurance service: 2015/16 to 2017/18 and the relevant programme standards.

Workforce – education and training

Education and training resources are available for healthcare professionals working in bowel cancer screening.

There are also more general resources to support screening professionals in their initial training and continuing professional development (CPD).

Keep up to date

Visit the Public Health England (PHE) screening blog to keep up to date with what is new in the programme, including the latest guidance and good practice. You can register to receive blog updates direct to your inbox.

PHE Screening also has its own Twitter account, which provides information and news on all national screening programmes.

Contact the screening team

NHS population screening helpdesk

PHE Screening
Floor 5
Wellington House
133-155 Waterloo Road

London
SE1 8UG

The helpdesk is not for media enquiries and does not have access to screening results. For queries about results, contact your GP or local screening service. Order screening leaflets at www.gov.uk/phe/screening-leaflets.

Published 1 January 2015
Last updated 8 November 2018 + show all updates
  1. Page updated with new developments in the bowel cancer screening programme.
  2. Added link to programme specific operating model under quality assurance.
  3. Added bowel cancer screening helpline contact details.
  4. First published.