Bowel cancer screening

A national bowel screening programme is being rolled out around the country. It is available to everyone aged 60 to 74 years 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 District Health Board. 
  2. It’s been rolled out gradually across Aotearoa New Zealand and is now available everywhere. 
  3. In some regions the programme will be funded for Māori and Pasifika from the age of 50. Currently those living in the Te Whatu Ora Waikato region are being offered this service. 

Image credit: Time to Screen, NZ

Why is bowel cancer screening important?

Aotearoa 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 have an advanced polyp that can be followed up and confirmed with a colonoscopy.

The age range is being extended to include 50–59 years for Māori and Pasifika because a higher proportion of bowel cancer occurs for Māori and Pasifika before the age of 60 compared to others. The lower starting age for screening will become available across Aotearoa New Zealand over time, but is currently only available in Waikato. When other regions are offering this extended service they will be added to the list on this Time to Screen page.

So that your medical history (eg, hospital admissions, screening tests) is correctly linked to you, each person is allocated a National Health Index (NHI) number which also includes your age and ethnicity. If your ethnicity is not recorded (or is incorrect) you will need to talk to your healthcare provider to get it updated in order to receive your screening invitation once you become eligible.

What will happen when I have my bowel cancer screening?

  • When it's your turn to be screened, you'll 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 to see if there are any polyps or other signs of bowel cancer.
  • A coloscopy is a test to look at the lining of your bowel using a colonoscope – a long, soft flexible tube containing a tiny video camera and a light. It is normally a safe procedure and complications are unusual. If you have any concerns, talk to your healthcare provider.

How to do the bowel screening test

 (Ministry of Health, NZ, 2022)

 The How to do the bowel screening test video is available to view in 11 languages:

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

Bowel screening programme description by Dr Derek Lou in English

(Te Whatu Ora, NZ, 2018)

This video is also available in Mandarin and Cantonese.


  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. Reviewed By: Associate Professor Sue Wells, Public Health Physician, University of Auckland Last reviewed: 07 Feb 2023