General practitioners' perceptions of population based bowel screening and their influence on practice: a qualitative study

Publication Type:
Journal Article
BMC Family Practice, 2017, 18 (1)
Issue Date:
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© 2017 The Author(s). Background: Although largely preventable, Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. General Practitioners (GPs) have an important role to play in prevention and early detection of bowel cancer, however in Australia this is yet to be optimised and participation remains low. This study sought to understand how GPs' perceptions of bowel screening influence their attitudes to, and promotion of the faecal occult blood test (FOBT), to identify opportunities to enhance their role. Methods: Interviews were conducted with 31 GPs from metropolitan and regional New South Wales (NSW), Australia. Discussions canvassed GPs' perceptions of their role in bowel screening and the national screening program; perceptions of screening tests; practices regarding discussing screening with patients; and views on opportunities to enhance their role. Transcripts were coded using Nvivo and thematically analysed. Results: The study revealed GPs' perceptions of screening did not always align with broader public health definitions of 'population screening'. While many GPs reportedly understood the purpose of population screening, notions of the role of asymptomatic screening for bowel cancer prevention were more limited. Descriptions of screening centred on two major uses: the use of a screening 'process' to identify individual patients at higher risk; and the use of screening 'tools', including the FOBT, to aid diagnosis. While the FOBT was perceived as useful for identifying patients requiring follow up, GPs expressed concerns about its reliability. Colonoscopy by comparison, was considered by many as the gold standard for both screening and diagnosis. This perception reflects a conceptualisation of the screening process and associated tools as an individualised method for risk assessment and diagnosis, rather than a public health strategy for prevention of bowel cancer. Conclusion: The results show that GPs' perceptions of screening do not always align with broader public health definitions of 'population screening'. Furthermore, the way GPs understood screening was shown to impact their clinical practice, influencing their preferences for, and use of 'screening' tools such as FOBT. The findings suggest emphasising the preventative opportunity of FOBT screening would be beneficial, as would formally engaging GPs in the promotion of bowel screening.
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