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Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine - Barts and The London

Only a third of women take up all offered cancer screenings, new research finds

In a paper published in the Journal of Medical Screening, researchers from the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and King’s College London have found that despite free cancer screening programmes, only 35% take part in all offered programmes.

24 September 2019

In England, women are invited for screening for three types of cancer concurrently in their sixties; for the last cervical screen before they exit the programme, for breast screening every three years, and for bowel screening every two years. This means that an average woman aged 60 can expect to receive five or six cancer screening invitations by the time she turns 65. In England, cancer screening is provided by the NHS free of charge.

In this study, researchers categorised a sample of just over three thousand eligible women in their sixties according to the last screening round. They looked into women’s participation in all three programmes.

Results showed that:

  • 35% took part in all three screening programmes;
  • 37% participated in two programmes;
  • 17% accessed one type of screening; and
  • 10% were not screened at all.

They also found that general practices with a higher proportion of unemployed patients and a higher number of smokers had a lower rate of take-up of all three screening programmes. Conversely, take-up was more frequent among practices in areas of less deprivation, with a higher proportion of women with caring duties, those with long-term health conditions, and those with a high level of patient satisfaction with the practice itself.

Senior author Professor Stephen Duffy from Queen Mary University of London said: “These results demonstrate the inequalities in cancer screening participation, with the lowest levels of participation in the areas of highest deprivation.

“Since most women had at least one form of screening, we know that there isn’t an objection to screening as a whole. However, individuals find some screening procedures less acceptable than others, so the key to improving participation is making the screening experience better.

“We’ve seen this work with a new and less burdensome test in bowel cancer screening, which was considerably more acceptable and resulted in a substantial increase in uptake. Most encouragingly, the greatest improvements in uptake were seen in those who previously had the lowest participation levels.”