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Having a colonoscopy? Here’s what you need to know

24 October, 2019
Colonoscopy Procedure

You’re probably reading this because your doctor has told you that you need to have a colonoscopy. If you’re a first-timer, you might be a little nervous, which is normal. In fact, colonoscopies are a very common procedure, and one of the top reasons our CBHS members go to hospital. We’ll take you through what’s involved so you know what to expect on the day.

What is the colon and what does it do?

First of all, the colon is your large bowel. This is a 1.5m long tube which forms part of your digestive system. After your food leaves your stomach it travels first to the small bowel, then to the colon as a liquid form. Your colon’s job is to absorb the water from that food. What’s left then moves through your rectum and out of your body.

Do I really need a colonoscopy?

There are many reasons why people approach their GP, leading to a colonoscopy referral. Some common ones include stomach pain, passing blood, changes to bowel habits, investigations for bowel cancer or haemorrhoids. To fully investigate what’s causing these issues, your GP will need to refer you to a gastroenterologist for a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is often the best way to see inside the bowel to learn more about the causes of your symptoms.

How do I decide where to have my colonoscopy?

When having a colonoscopy in Australia, you have the choice of public or private treatment. If you’d like to have your colonoscopy in a private hospital, ask your GP to refer you to a specialist who participates in the Access Gap Cover scheme, or for a list of specialists who may be willing to participate. So, you’re not locked into seeing a specific specialist, ask your GP for an open referral so that you can choose. You’ll also need to check the specialist you choose is operating out of a hospital which has an agreement with CBHS.

Before you lock anything in, check with CBHS to see what you’re covered for and avoid any nasty surprises. Read more on minimising out-of-pocket costs for your hospital trip.

Bowel Cancer Australia recommends that you choose an experienced specialist. They have a helpful list of questions you can ask your specialist to ensure they’re focused on quality.

Colonoscopies are funded by Medicare in a public hospital, but you may experience a long wait time, and you won’t get to choose your doctor or even the date/time of your procedure. For some people, waiting a long time for answers can be nerve-wracking.

What will I need to do before my colonoscopy?

Follow your individual instructions from your gastroenterologist. Your hospital will also complete a full screening before the procedure, to collect all the important details of your medical history including any medications you’re taking.

In the lead up to your procedure, there are certain foods that you might be told to avoid for around a week before. You might also be advised to eat a low-fibre diet. This will help you achieve a ‘clean’ bowel for the team on the day. To ensure your bowel is fully empty for your colonoscopy your doctor will write a prescription for a preparation kit for you. This usually involves drinking a ‘prep’ liquid, and quite a large amount of it! Many patients report that drinking the prep is the most uncomfortable part of the whole procedure. It’s normal to expect diarrhoea after the prep, so plan close access to a bathroom during this day and consider cancelling any commitments.

What happens on the day?

Again, you’ll follow your treating team’s detailed instructions here. But you can expect that you’ll need to fast (no food) and then stop all fluids after a certain time. That includes water, coffee, chewing gum and mints! Following the instructions about food and drinks is really important because eating or drinking things after a certain time can mean your surgery might need to be delayed or even postponed for your health and safety.

Once you arrive at the hospital, you’ll be admitted for your colonoscopy. This is a day procedure, so you likely won’t have to stay overnight. To get you ready, hospital staff will insert an intravenous cannula into a vein in your hand or arm to administer medications before, during and after your procedure. Most people receive conscious sedation for a colonoscopy, meaning you are unlikely to feel any pain and, in most cases, won’t recall what happened.

During the procedure, the team insert a long flexible tube called a ‘colonoscope’ into your anus. The scope blows air into your colon to make things easier to see and takes images along the way. Your doctor may even remove polyps or take a biopsy if he or she needs to. Some polyps can develop into cancer if left untreated.  The whole process takes around 30-60 minutes. Watch this quick 30 second video to see an animated version of the procedure.

After your colonoscopy

You’ll ‘wake up’ in a recovery area and be able to have a snack and something to drink. After a few hours when you’re fully alert, you should be able to go home.

Because you were sedated, it’s not safe to drive home so you’ll need to arrange someone to pick you up. You should not do any of these things for the 24 hours after your colonoscopy: drive a car; travel alone (including Uber, taxi and public transport), use machinery or sign legal papers. Most people don’t return to work on the day of their procedure.

At home, you might feel a bit bloated or gassy, but this should resolve quickly. As soon as you feel up to it, you’ll be able to return to your normal activities (aside from those above) as long as your doctor hasn’t advised you otherwise. You will get instructions to follow, and specific details of who to contact if you have concerns post-procedure. Side effects are rare, but reach out to the contact provided if you’re worried about any aspect of your recovery.

You’ll also have a follow-up appointment with your doctor or specialist to discuss the results.

More information

  • Contact us on 1300 654 123 to confirm your benefit entitlement prior to receiving hospital treatment.
  • Bowel Cancer Australia have a very comprehensive guide to the colonoscopy procedure you might like to read.

All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified Health Care Professional.

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