A Cancer Research UK study, carried out at University College London, assessed the behaviour of 40,000 people to see whether their previous experiences of bowel cancer screening affected the likelihood of them dropping out of later tests.
The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme (BCSP) offers biennial colorectal cancer screening in the form of a faecal occult blood test (FOBt) to patients aged between 60-74 years.
Behavioural researchers, with results published in the British Journal of Cancer, found that almost 40% of people who received an abnormal result in their last screening test ignored their next screening invitation two years later.
Patients who receive an abnormal result are referred for follow up tests including a colonoscopy in order to rule out the possibility of cancer.
But even if they were cleared of having cancer in their last test, patients who do not respond to the next invitation could still be at risk, the researchers warned.
In contrast, just 13% of those who received a normal result on previous last test failed to continue with the screening.
Lead author, Dr Siu Hing Lo, said: ‘Our research has identified a small but high risk group who are failing to continue with bowel cancer screening tests. We urgently need to understand why people are dropping out of bowel cancer screening and not attending the follow up investigations, as we know the test saves lives.’
The BCSP aims to detect bowel cancer at an early stage before people have obvious symptoms and when treatment is much more likely to be successful.
More than 41,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK, accounting for 13% of all cancers diagnosed, making it the fourth most common cancer. The disease kills over 16,000 people a year.
Julie Sharp, head of health information at Cancer Research UK, said it was ‘concerning’ that patients with abnormal results were dropping out of the programme.
‘It’s really important to repeat the test every two years and Cancer Research UK is working hard to make people aware of bowel screening and help to remove any barriers that might be stopping them from taking the test,’ she said.