Colorectal cancer screening: scientific review

JAMA. 2003 Mar 12;289(10):1288-96. doi: 10.1001/jama.289.10.1288.


Context: Screening for colorectal cancer clearly reduces colorectal cancer mortality, yet many eligible adults remain unscreened. Several screening tests are available, and various professional organizations have differing recommendations on which screening test to use. Clinicians are challenged to ensure that eligible patients undergo colorectal cancer screening and to guide patients in choosing what tests to receive.

Objective: To critically assess the evidence for use of the available colorectal cancer screening tests, including fecal occult blood tests, sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, double-contrast barium enema, and newer tests, such as virtual colonoscopy and stool-based molecular screening.

Data sources: All relevant English-language articles were identified using PubMed (January 1966-August 2002), published meta-analyses, reference lists of key articles, and expert consultation.

Data extraction: Studies that evaluated colorectal cancer screening in healthy individuals and assessed clinical outcomes were included. Evidence from randomized controlled trials was considered to be of highest quality, followed by observational evidence. Diagnostic accuracy studies were evaluated when randomized controlled trials and observational studies were not available or did not provide adequate evidence. Studies were excluded if they did not evaluate colorectal screening tests and if they did not evaluate average-risk individuals.

Data synthesis: Randomized controlled trials have shown that fecal occult blood testing can reduce colorectal cancer incidence and mortality. Case-control studies have shown that sigmoidoscopy is associated with a reduction in mortality, and observational studies suggest colonoscopy is effective as well. Combining fecal occult blood testing and sigmoidoscopy may decrease mortality and can increase diagnostic yield.

Conclusion: The recommendation that all men and women aged 50 years or older undergo screening for colorectal cancer is supported by a large body of direct and indirect evidence. At present, the available evidence does not currently support choosing one test over another.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Barium Sulfate
  • Colonoscopy
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / genetics
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Contrast Media
  • DNA Mutational Analysis
  • DNA, Neoplasm / analysis
  • Enema
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mass Screening / methods*
  • Middle Aged
  • Occult Blood
  • Sigmoidoscopy
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed


  • Contrast Media
  • DNA, Neoplasm
  • Barium Sulfate