Faecal immunochemical testing in bowel cancer screening: Estimating outcomes for different diagnostic policies

J Med Screen. 2021 Sep;28(3):277-285. doi: 10.1177/0969141320980501. Epub 2020 Dec 20.


Objectives: The National Health Service Bowel Cancer Screening Programme (NHS BCSP) in England has replaced guaiac faecal occult blood testing by faecal immunochemical testing (FIT). There is interest in fully exploiting FIT measures to improve bowel cancer (CRC) screening strategies. In this paper, we estimate the relationship of the quantitative haemoglobin concentration provided by FIT in faecal samples with underlying pathology. From this we estimate thresholds required for given levels of sensitivity to CRC and high-risk adenomas (HRA).

Methods: Data were collected from a pilot study of FIT in England in 2014, in which 27,238 participants completed a FIT. Those with a faecal haemoglobin concentration (f-Hb) of at least 20 µg/g were referred for further investigation, usually colonoscopy. Truncated regression models were used to explore the relationship between bowel pathology and FIT results. Regression results were applied to estimate sensitivity to different abnormalities for a number of thresholds.

Results: Participants with CRC and HRA had significantly higher f-Hb, and this remained unchanged after adjusting for age and sex. While a threshold of 20 μg/g was estimated to capture 82.2% of CRC and 64.0% of HRA, this would refer 7.8% of participants for colonoscopy. The current programme threshold used in England of 120 μg/g was estimated to identify 47.8% of CRC and 25.0% of HRA.

Conclusions: Under the current diagnostic policy of dichotomising FIT results, a very low threshold would be required to achieve high sensitivity to CRC and HRA, which would place further strain on colonoscopy resources. The NHS BCSP in England might benefit from a diagnostic policy that makes greater use of the quantitative nature of FIT.

Keywords: Bowel cancer; FIT thresholds; colorectal cancer; faecal immunochemical test; iFOBT; screening policies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Colonoscopy
  • Colorectal Neoplasms* / diagnosis
  • Early Detection of Cancer
  • Feces / chemistry
  • Hemoglobins / analysis
  • Humans
  • Mass Screening
  • Occult Blood*
  • Pilot Projects
  • Policy
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • State Medicine


  • Hemoglobins