Importance: Colorectal cancer (CRC) remains a significant cause of morbidity and mortality in the US.
Objective: To systematically review the effectiveness, test accuracy, and harms of screening for CRC to inform the US Preventive Services Task Force.
Data sources: MEDLINE, PubMed, and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials for relevant studies published from January 1, 2015, to December 4, 2019; surveillance through March 26, 2021.
Study selection: English-language studies conducted in asymptomatic populations at general risk of CRC.
Data extraction and synthesis: Two reviewers independently appraised the articles and extracted relevant study data from fair- or good-quality studies. Random-effects meta-analyses were conducted.
Main outcomes and measures: Colorectal cancer incidence and mortality, test accuracy in detecting cancers or adenomas, and serious adverse events.
Results: The review included 33 studies (n = 10 776 276) on the effectiveness of screening, 59 (n = 3 491 045) on the test performance of screening tests, and 131 (n = 26 987 366) on the harms of screening. In randomized clinical trials (4 trials, n = 458 002), intention to screen with 1- or 2-time flexible sigmoidoscopy vs no screening was associated with a decrease in CRC-specific mortality (incidence rate ratio, 0.74 [95% CI, 0.68-0.80]). Annual or biennial guaiac fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) vs no screening (5 trials, n = 419 966) was associated with a reduction of CRC-specific mortality after 2 to 9 rounds of screening (relative risk at 19.5 years, 0.91 [95% CI, 0.84-0.98]; relative risk at 30 years, 0.78 [95% CI, 0.65-0.93]). In observational studies, receipt of screening colonoscopy (2 studies, n = 436 927) or fecal immunochemical test (FIT) (1 study, n = 5.4 million) vs no screening was associated with lower risk of CRC incidence or mortality. Nine studies (n = 6497) evaluated the test accuracy of screening computed tomography (CT) colonography, 4 of which also reported the test accuracy of colonoscopy; pooled sensitivity to detect adenomas 6 mm or larger was similar between CT colonography with bowel prep (0.86) and colonoscopy (0.89). In pooled values, commonly evaluated FITs (14 studies, n = 45 403) (sensitivity, 0.74; specificity, 0.94) and stool DNA with FIT (4 studies, n = 12 424) (sensitivity, 0.93; specificity, 0.85) performed better than high-sensitivity gFOBT (2 studies, n = 3503) (sensitivity, 0.50-0.75; specificity, 0.96-0.98) to detect cancers. Serious harms of screening colonoscopy included perforations (3.1/10 000 procedures) and major bleeding (14.6/10 000 procedures). CT colonography may have harms resulting from low-dose ionizing radiation. It is unclear if detection of extracolonic findings on CT colonography is a net benefit or harm.
Conclusions and relevance: There are several options to screen for colorectal cancer, each with a different level of evidence demonstrating its ability to reduce cancer mortality, its ability to detect cancer or precursor lesions, and its risk of harms.