Geographical and spatial variations in bowel cancer screening participation, Australia, 2015–2020

This study describes geographical patterns in bowel cancer screening participation in Australia between 2015–2020. Understanding this may inform targeted interventions to improve screening uptake. 

Background: Participation in bowel cancer screening programs remains poor in many countries. Knowledge of geographical variation in participation rates may help design targeted interventions to improve uptake. This study describes small-area and broad geographical patterns in bowel screening participation in Australia between 2015–2020.

Methods: Publicly available population-level participation data for Australia’s National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) were modelled using generalized linear models to quantify screening patterns by remoteness and area-level disadvantage. Bayesian spatial models were used to obtain smoothed estimates of participation across 2,247 small areas during 2019–2020 compared to the national average, and during 2015–2016 and 2017–2018 for comparison. Spatial heterogeneity was assessed using the maximized excess events test.

Results: Overall, screening participation rates were around 44% over the three time-periods. Participation was consistently lower in remote or disadvantaged areas, although heterogeneity was evident within these broad categories. There was strong evidence of spatial differences in participation over all three periods, with little change in patterns between time periods. If the spatial variation was reduced (so low participation areas were increased to the 80th centile), an extra 250,000 screens (4% of total) would have been conducted during 2019–2020.

Conclusions: Despite having a well-structured evidence-based government funded national bowel cancer screening program, the substantial spatial variation in participation rates highlights the importance of accounting for the unique characteristics of specific geographical regions and their inhabitants. Identifying the reasons for geographical disparities could inform interventions to achieve more equitable access and a higher overall bowel screening uptake.


Paramita Dasgupta, Jessica K. Cameron, Belinda Goodwin, Susanna M. Cramb, Kerrie Mengersen, Joanne F. Aitken, Peter D. Baade

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