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PCTs cut long-term sick cover

The UK is on the verge of introducing national faecal occult blood testing to screen for colorectal cancer, after publication of conclusive results from five major pilot studies.

Screening successfully and cost-effectively detected cancers among the quarter of a million study participants, with more than half of cases picked up at an early stage.

Professor Robert Steele, chair of the UK Colorectal Cancer Screening Executive Group, said screening with faecal occult blood testing was 'definitely viable' in the UK and should have a major impact on mortality.

The research, published on the BMJ's website last week and due to appear shortly in the journal, found that of 478,250 people who were sent a test kit, 56.8 per cent returned samples.

A total of 552 cancers were detected, 16.6 per cent of which were polyp cancers and 48 per cent Dukes's Stage A, while only 1 per cent had metastasised.

Professor Steele, head of the surgery department at the University of Dundee, said his team had minimised the impact on GP workload with a central system to send out invitations and a helpline to deal with queries, claiming his local GPs were now supportive.

The Department of Health will consider an options analysis in October on the respective benefits of faecal occult blood testing and sigmoidoscopy and has committed itself to a national roll-out. A spokesperson said it is currently addressing funding shortages for endoscopy services – considered the major stumbling block to the introduction of screening.

Dr Richard Stevens, a GP in Oxford and chair of the Primary Care Society for Gastroenterology, called for a national screening programme to be introduced as quickly as possible, but admitted endoscopy services were overstretched.

By Emma Wilkinson

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