New research makes compelling case for bowel cancer screening program

21 February 2011

New international research published in the Medical Journal of Australia today shows the Federal Government could give all Australians aged 50 to 74 access to a life-saving bowel cancer test for as little as $80 million in net annual costs as health system savings accrue.

Cancer Council Australia said the findings, from academics at the University of North Carolina and the University of Sydney, made a compelling case for expanding the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program - which was winding down as the Government considered its future.

"The findings support the single message in Cancer Council Australia's pre-budget submission to Treasury: that expanding the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program is the best investment available to the Australian Government for reducing cancer deaths in the short and long term," CEO Professor Ian Olver said.

"We will know on budget night whether the Government is prepared to make the investment this year - or whether more lives will be lost while program expansion is delayed."

Professor Olver said the estimated gross cost of $150 million for the program was comparable to the breast and cervical screening programs, both of which Cancer Council supported. "Yet bowel cancer is killing 1200 more Australians each year than breast and cervical cancers combined - why should people with bowel cancer miss out on a life-saving test?"

Study co-author Kathy Flitcroft, from the University of Sydney, said the annual $150 million outlay would decrease as cost offsets accrued, incidence reduced and people were diagnosed earlier, thus reducing hospital expenditure which accounted for most of Australia's escalating bowel cancer bill.

"Over time, we estimate net annual costs of an expanded program would be adjusted to around $80 million - only $50 million more than the Government is paying now for one-off testing of only three age groups," Ms Flitcroft said.

Lead author Professor Mike Pignone, from the University of North Carolina, said he hoped the study would help persuade the Australian Government to expand the program.

"The health system in Australia is well-regarded internationally, so it's anomalous that such a beneficial program, in terms of both health outcomes and cost-effectiveness, faces an uncertain future," Professor Pignone said.

Professor Olver said the study estimated up to 500 lives each year would be saved by an expanded program, however this was based on conservative participation rates. "If the program was properly promoted, participation would be expected to increase, with the potential to save up to 1000 lives a year - a greater mortality benefit than the breast and cervical cancer screening programs combined."

Interview contact: Ms Kathy Flitcroft, 0433 455 121, 9351 8062, 

Media enquiries:

Kath Kenny, University of Sydney, 0478 303 173, 9351 1584,

Victoria Hollick, University of Sydney, 0401 711 361, 9351 2579, 

Kate Dorrell, Cancer Council Australia, 0404 691 838,