Bowel cancer screening

A national bowel screening programme is being rolled out around the country. It is will become available to everyone aged 60 to 74 who is eligible for publicly funded healthcare in New Zealand.

Key points

  1. The introduction of a national bowel screening programme in New Zealand follows a successful 6-year pilot programme by the Waitematā DHB. 
  2. It’s being rolled out gradually across the country so district health boards (DHBs) can prepare for the extra investigations and treatments that flow from a screening programme.
  3. The staged approach is also to make sure that treatment for patients with symptoms is not held up because of the extra demands from screening.
  4. The roll-out started in 2017 and about half the DHBs are now in the programme.
  5. You can find out when the programme will start in your DHB. You will be contacted within 2 years of it starting in your DHB.

Image credit: Time to Screen, NZ

Why is bowel cancer screening important?

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. More than 3000 New Zealanders are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year and more than 1200 die from it.

Bowel cancer occurs when normal cells on the inside of your bowel become abnormal and grow out of control. These cells can turn into a polyp (growth) and some polyps may grow into a cancer over time. There may be no warning signs of bowel cancer in the early stages.

Regular bowel screening of people who do not have any symptoms of bowel cancer provides an opportunity to find bowel cancer early. This means it can be treated sooner and the long-term outcome is likely to be better.

Find out more about bowel cancer symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment.

Bowel screening is for people who don’t have any symptoms of bowel cancer. If you have any bowel symptoms that concern you, talk to your doctor straight away.

Why is bowel cancer screening only for 60 to 74-year-olds?

In the pilot, about 80% of cancers detected were in people aged 60 to 74 years. This means screening is being offered to those most likely to have bowel cancer or an advanced polyp detected by a follow-up colonoscopy.

As a colonoscopy is an invasive procedure that carries some risk, it is important to ensure that the benefits of screening outweigh any potential harm. Your doctor will help you decide if a colonoscopy should be carried out.

What will happen when I have my bowel cancer screening?

  • When it is your turn to be screened, you will receive a letter inviting you to take part. You will also be sent a kit that allows you to collect a faecal (poo) sample at home. It includes a tube that you send by freepost with your poo sample inside.
  • The sample will be tested in a laboratory for the presence of tiny amounts of blood that you can’t see when you look at it. If blood is found it may be an early warning sign that something is wrong with your bowel.
  • If there are any concerns with your sample, you will be notified and booked in to have a colonoscopy.

Learn more

National bowel screening programme or phone 0800 924 432 
Information about bowel screening in other languages Health ED, NZ
Information about bowel screening in other languages National Screening Unit, NZ


  1. National bowel screening programme National Screening Unit, NZ, 2017
  2. Bowel screening – from pilot to national programme Ministry of Health, NZ, 2017
  3. About the National Bowel Screening Programme Time to Screen, NZ, 2020
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.