An at-home stool test is so cost effective that research findings suggest that giving it away for free to people who should get screened for colorectal cancer is good practice.

Fecal immunochemical testing (FIT) can detect even minute amounts of blood in the stool—a possible sign of colorectal cancer. If conducted on an annual basis, as recommended, FIT is as effective at detecting precancer or cancer as a colonoscopy conducted every 10 years, although positive results still necessitate further evaluation via a colonoscopy.

By analyzing the results of a randomized controlled trial, Alison Brenner, PhD, MPH, and Stephanie Wheeler, PhD, MPH, both of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and colleagues found that mailing people between ages 52 and 64 a hard-copy reminder to get screened along with an at-home FIT kit was more cost effective than mailing them just the reminder. Though the researchers’ conclusion might seem counterintuitive, it makes sense when you consider that participants who did not receive an FIT kit were more likely to schedule a colonoscopy than avail themselves of FIT. Colonoscopies cost about $3,000 on average, while FIT costs $18.76 on average.

Getting a testing kit for free also improved screening rates. The randomized controlled trial compared colorectal cancer screening rates among 35,000 North Carolinians on Medicaid who had received either a reminder or a reminder and an FIT kit. Those who had received a reminder and an FIT kit were 7.4% more likely to follow through with screening than those who had received only a reminder. 

The results, the authors wrote in the journal Cancer, “demonstrate that health departments and state Medicaid programs can efficiently mail FIT kits to large numbers of Medicaid enrollees to increase CRC [colorectal cancer] screening completion.” 

While FIT, colonoscopies and other diagnostic tests are necessary to prevent colorectal cancer from developing or progressing, they are performed less frequently than medical professionals advise. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control reported that one in three adults between ages 50 and 75 have never been screened. Colorectal cancer, the fourth most common cancer diagnosed in the United States, kills more than 50,000 Americans every year.

To read more about colorectal cancer, click here. To find out when you should start scheduling regular screenings, click here. And to learn how your family history affects your chances of developing colon cancer in your lifetime, click here.