Background: Double contrast barium enema (DCBE) is the examination carried out most frequently for investigation of patients with large bowel symptoms. The aim of this study was to compare the sensitivity of DCBE and colonoscopy for the detection of colorectal cancer and neoplastic polyps >/= 1 cm.
Methods: All patients undergoing DCBE (1389) or colonoscopy (1081) as the primary investigation for large bowel symptoms or for cancer or polyp surveillance in the first 9 months of 1997 at a large teaching hospital were included in this study. At 1 and 2 years following investigation, a computerized search of appropriate diagnosis and procedure codes to detect any missed cancers or polyps was performed for all patients with a normal investigation.
Results: Almost 19% of patients in both groups went on to have an additional large bowel investigation over the 2-year period. In the DCBE group, 47 patients (3.5%) had a cancer diagnosed; eight of them had been missed at the primary investigation (sensitivity 83%). In the colonoscopy group, 37 patients (3.4%) had a cancer; one of them had been missed at the primary investigation (sensitivity 97.5%). Neoplastic polyps >/= 1 cm were diagnosed in 1.6% of the DCBE group and in 7.7% of the colonoscopy group, with sensitivities of 21.7% and 91.4%, respectively. Nine patients (0.6%) had a false positive diagnosis of cancer in the DCBE group; one had an iatrogenic bowel perforation following flexible sigmoidoscopy.
Conclusions: Where adequate facilities and expertise exist, colonoscopy should be the investigation of choice for most patients with large bowel symptoms suggestive of neoplastic disease.