Gut 45:588-592 doi:10.1136/gut.45.4.588
  • Colorectal cancer

The risks of screening: data from the Nottingham randomised controlled trial of faecal occult blood screening for colorectal cancer


AIMS To determine the harm that ensues from faecal occult blood (FOB) screening for colorectal cancer.

METHODS 150 251 people were randomly allocated either to receive biennial Haemoccult FOB tests (n =75 253) or not to be contacted (n=74 998). Study group patients returning positive tests were offered colonic investigation; 1774 underwent complete investigation of the colon.

RESULTS There was no significant difference in the stage at presentation of interval versus control group cancers. Survival in the interval cancer group was significantly prolonged compared with the control group. Sensitivity for colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy and double contrast barium enema (DCBE) was 96.7%. There were no complications of DCBE but seven (0.5%) complications of colonoscopy, of which six required surgical intervention. There were no colonoscopy related deaths. No patients without colorectal cancer died within 30 days of colonic investigation. Five patients died within 30 days of surgery for screen detected colorectal neoplasia and a further two died without having surgery. Six patients died after 30 days but within two years of surgery for screen detected benign adenomas or stage A cancers; in all cases the cause of death was not related to colorectal cancer.

CONCLUSIONS There was investigation related morbidity but no mortality and little to support overdiagnosis bias. The group returning falsely negative tests had a better outcome compared with the whole control group. There is a negative side to any screening programme but mortality reduction in this and other trials suggests that a national programme of colorectal cancer screening should be given consideration.


  • Abbreviations used in this paper:
    faecal occult blood
    double contrast barium enema
    Family Health Service Authority
    number needed to be harmed
    number needed to treat