Could It Be Colorectal Cancer? General Practitioners' Use of the Faecal Occult Blood Test and Decision Making – A Qualitative Study

Cecilia Högberg; Eva Samuelsson; Mikael Lilja; Eva Fhärm


BMC Fam Pract. 2015;16(153) 

In This Article


Background: Abdominal complaints are common reasons for contacting primary care physicians, and it can be challenging for general practitioners (GPs) to identify patients with suspected colorectal cancer (CRC) for referral to secondary care. The immunochemical faecal occult blood test (iFOBT) is used as a diagnostic aid in primary care, but it is unclear how test results are interpreted. Studies show that negative tests are associated with a risk of delayed diagnosis of CRC and that some patients with positive tests are not investigated further. The aim of this study was to explore what makes GPs suspect CRC and to investigate their practices regarding investigation and referral, with special attention on the use of iFOBTs.

Method: Semi-structured individual interviews were conducted with eleven purposely selected GPs and registrars in Region Jämtland Härjedalen, Sweden, and subjected to qualitative content analysis.

Results: In the analysis of the interviews four categories were identified that described what made the physicians suspect CRC and their practices. Careful listening—with awareness of the pitfalls: Attentive listening was described as essential, but there was a risk of being misled by, for example, the patient's own explanations. Tests can help—the iFOBT can also complicate the diagnosis: All physicians used iFOBTs to various extents. In the absence of guidelines, all found their own ways to interpret and act on the test results. To refer or not to refer—safety margins are necessary: Uncertainty was described as a part of everyday work and was handled in different ways. Common vague symptoms could be CRC and thus justified referral with safety margins. Growing more confident—but also more humble: With increasing experience, the GPs described becoming more confident in their decisions but they were also more cautious.

Conclusions: Listening carefully to the patient's history was essential. The iFOBT was frequently used as support, but there were considerable variations in the interpretation and handling of the results. The diagnostic process can be described as navigating uncertain waters with safety margins, while striving to keep the patient's best interests in mind. The iFOBT may be useful as a diagnostic aid in primary care, but more research and evidence-based guidelines are needed.