The researchers said anyone with a parent, sibling or child diagnosed before 55 years of age or two first degree relatives diagnosed at any age, had a three to six fold risk of developing bowel cancer compared to the general community.
Colonoscopy, repeated every five years, is the recommended screening test for people at moderate or high risk of bowel cancer.
The study found only 47 per cent of people at moderate risk of bowel cancer engaged in recommended screening and only 49 per cent of those at potentially high risk.
The study found screening rates were higher in people who had a brother or sister affected by bowel cancer than those who had a parent or child affected. Screening was also higher in people who had discussed their risk with their family doctor.
Chief executive of Bowel Cancer Australia Mr Julien Wiggins said the study's findings reflect the charity's experience.
"We often speak to people with bowel cancer who have done everything they can to get other family members to screen, with no success. Seeing what a loved one is going through is still not enough to prompt some people to participate in screening."
He urged people to share their medical history amongst close relatives so everyone knew their risk and could seek medical advice.
"And don't wait for your family doctor to raise the topic of bowel cancer. If you have a first degree relative who has been diagnosed with bowel cancer, take the initiative and talk to your GP about appropriate screening for you."
Mr Wiggins said sharing information about family history of bowel cancer was one of the three key actions in Join the Bowel Movement.
"We asked people to Join the Bowel Movement by taking three simple steps to help save lives.
- Talk – reduce the embarrassment by talking with family and friends about signs, symptoms and testing for bowel cancer.
- Test – take a bowel cancer screening test, especially if you're over 50.
- Tell – share your family's medical history with close relatives."
The study was published in BMC Cancer 2013, 13:13