A national survey of primary care physicians' methods for screening for fecal occult blood

Ann Intern Med. 2005 Jan 18;142(2):86-94. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-142-2-200501180-00007.


Background: Screening with the fecal occult blood test (FOBT) has been shown to reduce colorectal cancer incidence and mortality in randomized, controlled trials. Although the test is simple, implementation requires adherence to specific techniques of testing and follow-up of abnormal results.

Objective: To examine how FOBT and follow-up are conducted in community practice across the United States.

Design: Cross-sectional national surveys of primary care physicians and the public.

Setting: The Survey of Colorectal Cancer Screening Practices in Health Care Organizations and the 2000 National Health Interview Survey.

Participants: 1147 primary care physicians who ordered or performed FOBT and 11 365 adults 50 years of age or older who responded to questions about FOBT use.

Measurements: Self-reported data on details of FOBT implementation and follow-up of positive results.

Results: Although screening guidelines recommend home tests, 32.5% (95% CI, 29.8% to 35.3%) of physicians used only the less accurate method of single-sample in-office testing; another 41.2% (CI, 38.3% to 44.0%) used both types of test. Follow-up of positive test results showed considerable nonadherence to guidelines, with 29.7% (CI, 27.1% to 32.4%) of physicians recommending repeating FOBT. Furthermore, sigmoidoscopy, rather than total colon examination, was commonly recommended to work up abnormal findings. Nearly one third of adults who reported having FOBT said they had only an in-office test, and nearly one third of those who reported abnormal FOBT results reported no follow-up diagnostic procedures.

Limitations: The study was based on self-reports. Data from the National Health Interview Survey may underestimate the prevalence of in-office testing and inadequate follow-up.

Conclusions: Mortality reductions demonstrated with FOBT in clinical trials may not be realized in community practice because of the common use of in-office tests and inappropriate follow-up of positive results. Education of providers and system-level interventions are needed to improve the quality of screening implementation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Colorectal Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Guideline Adherence
  • Health Surveys*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mass Screening / methods*
  • Middle Aged
  • Occult Blood*
  • Physicians, Family*
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'*
  • United States