MORE people than ever before are taking part in bowel cancer screening in Scotland since the introduction of a simpler test.

Participation increased among both sexes and all eligible age groups, with a significant increase in uptake among Scots who had never before taken part in bowel screening, from 8.2 per cent to 18.4%.

The new Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) kit, which was rolled out in November 2017, has also seen the gap between participation among the most and least deprived Scots narrow.

The biggest improvement in participation with FIT was among those living in the most deprived areas - up from 42.0% to 51.8%.

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Professor Robert Steele, the Dundee-based cancer surgeon who now chairs the UK National Screening Committee, said the results were fantastic.

He said: "We've seen a substantial increase in uptake - far more than we were expecting, which is great news.

"Also the uptake has been greater among the hard-to-reach groups, particularly those people living in deprived circumstances.

"We can't be absolutely sure of the reasons but we think that it's because, firstly, it's an easier test to do.

"It only needs to be done once. The old test had to be done three times and I think people just got fed up with it.

"The other reason is that, on asking people about this test, they seem to trust it more. They think it looks more scientific than the old card system, so there is a perception that this is a more accurate test - which indeed it is."

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The latest figures on the Scottish Bowel Screening Programme show that 64% of Scots sent the new FIT test between November 2017 and April 2018 returned a stool sample for testing, up from 56% from the same six-month period a year previously when the older Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) was still in use.

It is the first time since bowel screening began in Scotland that participation has exceeded 60%.

There have been fears, however, that the increase in uptake is putting pressure on Scotland's diagnostic services, with waiting times for colonoscopies on the increase.

Just 39.5% of bowel cancer patients whose disease was detected through routine screening started treatment within 62 days of referral in July to September last year.

The screening data shows that the percentage of 'positive' results from screening rose from 2.1% under FOBT to 3.2% using FIT - but only around six in every 100 patients who test positive from screening actually turn out to have cancer.

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Deborah Alsina, chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK, welcomed the increase in screening participation but warned that staffing had to be adequate to meet deman.

She said: “While the increased sensitivity and accuracy of FIT means we can detect more people who have bowel cancer, it also means more people who have traces of blood in their poo but who don’t have the disease will be referred for further diagnostic tests.

"This, together with more people taking part in screening, will undoubtedly put more demand on an already overstretched endoscopy service leading to hospitals breaching waiting time targets.

"What we need now is for the Scottish Government to implement their plan of action to tackle the endoscopy crisis. Until then, patients will continue to wait too long for tests that can diagnose bowel cancer or give them the all clear.”

However, Prof Steele, who was closely involved with the UK's earliest trials of colorectal cancer screening in the 1990s, said most referrals for colonoscopies were not the result of routine bowel screening.

He said: "It does pose a problem, but maybe not quite as big a problem as you might think. Screening actually only contributes a relatively small proportion of the total colonoscopy workload.

If we were to reduce the number of screening colonoscopies it wouldn't have a huge effect on the number of colonoscopies."

Screening is available to anyone aged 50 to 74 in Scotland, although older Scots can opt in. Kits are sent to all eligible addresses and once returned, stool samples are analysed for traces of blood at the central screening centre in Dundee.

The test is particularly good at detecting cancer at an early stage, with around two thirds of those cases picked up through screening between May 2016 and April 2018 being found at stages one or two.

Public Health Minister Joe FitzPatrick said: "We know that the earlier a cancer is detected, the greater the chances of successful treatment and often cure.

"This is why we launched our Detect Cancer Early programme in 2012 backed by a £42 million investment.

"Screening remains one of the most effective ways to find bowel cancer early and help reduce health inequalities in cancer outcomes.

"This is why I'm delighted to see one of the biggest improvements was amongst those living in deprived areas."