Bowel cancer screening in England and Wales is to start a decade earlier in a drive to pick up more cases of the disease at an earlier stage, the government has confirmed.
As it stands, men and women aged 60 to 74 are currently invited for bowel screening and are sent a home test kit every two years to provide stool samples.
However, an independent expert screening committee recommended that screening in England should in future start 10 years earlier at age 50 using the incoming faecal immunochemical home test kit (FIT), as evidence shows the move would pick up more bowel cancers at an earlier stage, thus improving the chance of treatment success.
Health secretary Matt Hancock and public health minister Steve Brine have agreed the recommendations, and NHS England and Public Health England will now look at how best to lower the screening age as part of the NHS Long Term Plan.
FIT - which is considered more reliable and easier to use than the current test - is due to be rolled out into the national bowel screening programme in the autumn, initially offered every two years to men and women at the current age range of 60 to 74.
“Starting screening ten years earlier at 50 will help spot more abnormalities at an early stage that could develop into bowel cancer if not detected,” said Professor Anne Mackie, director of screening at Public Health England.
“The committee recognises that this change will take time but wants the FIT test to be offered to all aged 60 and over as soon as possible, and options considered for a roll out plan where screening can be offered at 55 and eventually to all aged 50 – ensuring we have the best bowel screening programme possible.”
“We have a real opportunity to reshape our bowel screening programme and potentially detect the stages of bowel cancer much earlier,” added Brine.
Welcoming the move, Bowel Cancer UK called for “a clear plan from NHS England and NHS Wales, setting out a sensible but ambitious timeframe for implementation.
“This must address how current services will cope with introducing FIT, including improving the sensitivity of the test and lowering the screening age when we already know that the biggest constraints to implementing an optimal bowel cancer screening programme are a lack of endoscopy and pathology capacity.
“That’s why it will be vital to ensure that the NHS has enough staff and resource to deal with the increase in demand this would have on bowel cancer diagnostic services. This will of course save the NHS money over the longer term as an optimal bowel cancer screening programme can both prevent bowel cancer from developing or detect it early when it is cheaper and easier to treat.”