An economic analysis of different screening methods for detection of colorectal cancers suggests that in US or Canadian settings, screening with fecal immunochemical testing results in lower health-care costs as compared with other screening approaches.
Colorectal cancer (CRC) fulfills the World Health Organization criteria for mass screening, but screening uptake is low in most countries. CRC screening is resource intensive, and it is unclear if an optimal strategy exists. The objective of this study was to perform an economic evaluation of CRC screening in average risk North American individuals considering all relevant screening modalities and current CRC treatment costs.
Methods and Findings
An incremental cost-utility analysis using a Markov model was performed comparing guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (FOBT) or fecal immunochemical test (FIT) annually, fecal DNA every 3 years, flexible sigmoidoscopy or computed tomographic colonography every 5 years, and colonoscopy every 10 years. All strategies were also compared to a no screening natural history arm. Given that different FIT assays and collection methods have been previously tested, three distinct FIT testing strategies were considered, on the basis of studies that have reported “low,” “mid,” and “high” test performance characteristics for detecting adenomas and CRC. Adenoma and CRC prevalence rates were based on a recent systematic review whereas screening adherence, test performance, and CRC treatment costs were based on publicly available data. The outcome measures included lifetime costs, number of cancers, cancer-related deaths, quality-adjusted life-years gained, and incremental cost-utility ratios. Sensitivity and scenario analyses were performed. Annual FIT, assuming mid-range testing characteristics, was more effective and less costly compared to all strategies (including no screening) except FIT-high. Among the lifetimes of 100,000 average-risk patients, the number of cancers could be reduced from 4,857 to 1,782 and the number of CRC deaths from 1,393 to 457, while saving CAN$68 per person. Although screening patients with FIT became more expensive than a strategy of no screening when the test performance of FIT was reduced, or the cost of managing CRC was lowered (e.g., for jurisdictions that do not fund expensive biologic chemotherapeutic regimens), CRC screening with FIT remained economically attractive.
CRC screening with FIT reduces the risk of CRC and CRC-related deaths, and lowers health care costs in comparison to no screening and to other existing screening strategies. Health policy decision makers should consider prioritizing funding for CRC screening using FIT.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Colorectal (bowel) cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths for both men and women in North America. Colorectal cancer screening is an important means for reducing morbidity and mortality and fulfils the World Health Organization criteria for mass screening. However, a variety of CRC screening approaches are available. Colonoscopy is viewed as the gold standard of colorectal cancer screening as it has a high sensitivity for identifying adenomas and cancer and polyps can be removed during the screening examination. However, colonoscopy is associated with a number of complications and there are also barriers to access. Another type of test, the guaiac fecal occult blood test, has been shown to reduce mortality from colorectal cancer but this test has low sensitivity for identifying colorectal neoplasia, particularly adenomas. Fecal immunochemical tests, which also detect blood in the stool, have improved test performance characteristics (high sensitivity and specificity) and the potential to improve participation rates compared to guaiac fecal occult blood test and flexible sigmoidoscopy. Fecal DNA (a stool test, based on the detection of DNA shed by cancerous tissue) is another screening option, as is computed tomographic colonography (“virtual” colonoscopy), that might rival colonoscopy in detecting advanced adenomas and colorectal cancer but is expensive and requires a full colonic preparation.
Why Was This Study Done?
In the absence of firm comparative evidence to guide the selection of any one screening modality and given the varied test performance characteristics and the significant differences in costs and resources associated with each, a robust cost-effectiveness analysis might help health policy makers in deciding whether or not to offer screening and if so, in selecting the most appropriate and cost effective screening modality. In this study the researchers conducted a full economic evaluation of all relevant colorectal cancer screening modalities in North America.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers used an incremental cost-utility analysis, a sophisticated modeling technique, and two hypothetical patient cohorts (individuals with an “average risk,” i.e., no family history of colorectal cancer, aged 50–64 and 65–75) to compare guaiac-based fecal occult blood test or fecal immunochemical test annually (the researchers considered three distinct fecal immunochemical testing strategies on the basis of assays and collection methods taken from studies that have reported “low,” “mid,” and “high” test performance characteristics), fecal DNA every three years, flexible sigmoidoscopy or computed tomographic colonography every 5 years, and colonoscopy every 10 years. The researchers also included a no screening natural history arm as a comparison to each screening approach. For the baseline data of their model, the researchers used adenoma and colorectal prevalence rates from a recent systematic review and based screening adherence, test performance, and colorectal treatment costs on available data. The researchers found that annual fecal immunochemical testing with mid-range testing characteristics, was more effective and less costly compared to all strategies (including no screening). Using this screening modality, among the lifetimes of 100,000 average-risk patients, the number of cancers could be reduced from 4,857 to 1,393 and the number of deaths from colorectal cancer from 1,782 to 457, while saving CAN$68 per person. Although in the sensitivity and scenario analysis, screening patients using fecal immunochemical testing became more expensive than a strategy of no screening when the test performance of fecal immunochemical testing was reduced, or the cost of managing colorectal cancers was lowered, the researchers found that screening for colorectal cancer with fecal immunochemical testing remained the most economically attractive screening option.
What Do These Findings Mean?
This model-based economic analysis found that fecal immunochemical testing is more effective and less costly than all other colorectal screening strategies, including the most commonly-used stool-based screening test, guaiac-based fecal occult blood testing, and no screening. Furthermore, this study suggests that annual screening with fecal immunochemical testing (assuming mid-range test performance characteristics) reduces the risk of colorectal cancer and colorectal cancer–related deaths, and lowers health care costs in comparison to all other screening strategies and to no screening. Therefore, health policy makers should consider prioritizing funding for fecal immunochemical testing as the screening modality for colorectal cancer.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000370.
Cancer.org has information for patients on colorectal cancer
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) list colorectal screening guidelines
The CDC also provides patient information on colorectal cancer Screening