Total colonoscopy is arguably the best method available for examination of the colon and rectum. Colonoscopy costs are high and rising and it may be that in the future practitioners will be unable to afford to colonoscope all of the patients presently being examined. This retrospective study was undertaken in an attempt to examine the cost, in terms of lesions missed, of a limited endoscopy programme. During a 15 year period, 1426 colonoscopies were performed at Wellington Hospital, New Zealand. Total colonoscopy was possible in 79% of all patients. Three perforations occurred. Nine patients bled and two required blood transfusion after biopsy or 'snaring' of polyps. After exclusion of patients with continuous inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) 75% of all lesions were found in or distal to the descending colon. More cancers were found in patients colonoscoped because of bleeding. Thirty-two of 93 cancers diagnosed were proximal to the descending colon but 18 presented with bleeding. A further seven had a radiological abnormality. Only 7.5% of colorectal cancers would be missed by flexible sigmoidoscopy (65 cm) and 75% of the costs of total colonoscopy would be avoided if only patients presenting with bleeding and IBD were offered total colonoscopy and patients with radiological abnormalities were treated according to the abnormality. This compromise, based on the data presented, may represent a rational way to reduce colonoscopy costs.