I rise this evening to take the opportunity to highlight that next month is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. This annual initiative, running through the month of June, aims to raise public awareness of a disease that claims the lives of 77 Australians every week.
Bowel cancer is the second most common type of newly diagnosed cancer in Australia, affecting both men and women almost equally. It is Australia's second biggest cancer killer after lung cancer.
A highlight of the month is Red Apple Day on Wednesday 17 June, where Australians are encouraged to wear a bowel cancer awareness ribbon and host apple themed fundraisers.
Unfortunately, bowel cancer is not a warm and fuzzy cause, but that is no excuse for us not to talk about it. We need to remove any stigma about getting screened. The clinic I visit, Cairns Gastroenterology, is very proactive in this area. I will certainly be helping the clinic to get some media coverage next month as they work to promote the importance of screening.
I was also recently contacted by Dr Bernard Chin, a gastroenterologist with the clinic who has taken a keen interest in the issue. He said screening is particularly important as bowel cancer is an increasing problem in our aging population but, most importantly, is highly preventable. He has provided me with some ideas on how the screening of this cancer can be improved upon, and I have sent them through to our Minister for Health, Sussan Ley, to consider.
Firstly, Dr Chin recommends that screening be open to all Australians who are at risk. The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program has been in operation for some years now and he says there are a few holes in it.
Currently, only a proportion of Australians over the age of 50 are included in the annual mail-out. This, Dr Chin recommends, should be expanded to include all Australians between the ages of 50 and 70. I understand that budget constraints are behind the gradual rollout of the program; however, it is clear that a focus on prevention rather than cure will save money—and lives—in the long term.
Secondly, we need to make bowel cancer awareness more sexy—although I am not sure if 'sexy' is the right word! But there are definitely lessons that can be learned through the very effective marketing campaigns which have seen the colour pink become synonymous with breast cancer, the shaved head become synonymous with blood cancer and 'slip, slop, slap' become synonymous with skin cancer.
As a health issue, bowel cancer screening needs to be at the same level; otherwise public support, and the participation rates of Australians who get mailed the kit, will continue to fall.
Thirdly, Dr Chin says we need to improve the quality of endoscopy reports. He says the management of health information is improving but is still woefully slow compared to other technologies we have available today. He suggests a system where screening reports incorporate images and, in my state, are stored centrally in Brisbane, where they can be accessed from any Queensland Health computer with internet access within the state. As 75 per cent or more of all endoscopies are performed privately, he suggests that it might also be cost-effective for the federal government to partially pay for a system so private practitioners can also access it at a less cost prohibitive price point.
Lastly, Dr Chin says routine colonoscopies will be an increasing way of life for most Australians. Given that public hospitals can struggle to perform high-volume routine procedures, there could be a program to farm out routine public colonoscopies to the private sector. This will reduce the waiting times at public hospitals for more urgent and high-end procedures.
I would like to thank Dr Chin for taking the time to provide me with his thoughts. It is obvious that we need to start looking at how the screening program can be improved if we want to reduce the incidence of this killer disease. I certainly urge my colleagues to set an example by getting themselves screened. The message we must support is: 'Be healthy and, if you have any concerns, don't put off that visit to your doctor.'