Which colon cancer screening test? A comparison of costs, effectiveness, and compliance

Am J Med. 2001 Dec 1;111(8):593-601. doi: 10.1016/s0002-9343(01)00977-9.


Purpose: Recent media reports have advocated the use of colonoscopy for colorectal cancer screening. However, colonoscopy is expensive compared with other screening modalities, such as fecal occult blood testing and flexible sigmoidoscopy. We sought to determine the cost effectiveness of different screening strategies for colorectal cancer at levels of compliance likely to be achieved in clinical practice.

Methods: A Markov decision model was used to examine screening strategies, including fecal occult blood testing alone, fecal occult blood testing combined with flexible sigmoidoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy alone, and colonoscopy. The timing and frequency of screening was varied to assess optimal screening intervals. Sensitivity analyses were conducted to assess the factors that have the greatest effect on the cost effectiveness of screening.

Results: All strategies are cost effective versus no screening, at less than $20,000 per life-year saved. Direct comparison suggests that the most effective strategies are twice-lifetime colonoscopy and flexible sigmoidoscopy combined with fecal occult blood testing. Assuming perfect compliance, flexible sigmoidoscopy combined with fecal occult blood testing is slightly more effective than twice-lifetime colonoscopy (at ages 50 and 60 years) but is substantially more expensive, with an incremental cost effectiveness of $390,000 per additional life-year saved. However, compliance with primary screening tests and colonoscopic follow-up for polyps affect screening decisions. Colonoscopy at ages 50 and 60 years is the preferred test regardless of compliance with the primary screening test. However, if follow-up colonoscopy for polyps is less than 75%, then even once-lifetime colonoscopy is preferred over most combinations of flexible sigmoidoscopy and fecal occult blood testing. Costs of colonoscopy and proportion of cancer arising from polyps also affect cost effectiveness.

Conclusions: Colonoscopic screening for colorectal cancer appears preferable to current screening recommendations. Screening recommendations should be tailored to the compliance levels achievable in different practice settings.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Colonic Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Colonic Neoplasms / economics*
  • Colonic Neoplasms / mortality
  • Colonoscopy / economics*
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis / economics
  • Decision Support Techniques
  • Guideline Adherence / economics*
  • Humans
  • Markov Chains
  • Occult Blood*
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Sigmoidoscopy / economics*
  • Survival Analysis