Cervical screening boost 'would save £10m'

In collaboration with the Press Association

As well as saving lives, the NHS could save £10 million every year if it were to increase the number of women who go for cervical screening, according to a report from think tank Demos.

"Worryingly, screening rates have been slowly declining for several years now." - Jessica Kirby, Cancer Research UK

The authors of the report called for the introduction of "on the spot" smear tests so women can be offered a screening during another appointment to overcome the tendency of some women who "put off" their screening.

And there should be awareness campaigns targeting specific communities who are less likely to take up their screening invite.

Meanwhile celebrities or religious leaders should become cervical cancer ambassadors to help women "overcome cultural obstacles" to improving screening rates, they said.

Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that can be prevented by screening, since screening picks up the very early cell changes that may develop into cancer if left untreated.

The NHS spends £21 million a year treating cervical cancer patients. But if all women were regularly screened the budget would fall to £12.1 million, the report says.

And there would be benefits for the wider economy as well because many working women would not need to reduce their working hours as a result of a diagnosis, they said.

The report's author Jo Salter, a researcher at Demos, said: "With cervical cancer, the stakes are so high - both cost and health-wise - but in many cases it can be avoided through screening. So it is worrying that so many women are currently ignoring their screening invitations.

"We know that many obstacles stand in the way of cervical screening - nervousness, embarrassment, lack of time, lack of knowledge, overwhelmed services, and a feeling of 'it will never happen to me'. It is crucial that these obstacles are removed, making it as easy as possible for women to make cervical screening part of their regular routine, as a smart, precautionary measure."

All women in England, Wales and Northern Ireland aged 25 to 60 are offered cervical screening tests every three to five years. The ages vary slightly in Scotland but will be amended from next year to be in line with other parts of Britain.

According to Jessica Kirby, senior health information manager at Cancer Research UK, cervical screening saves around 5000 lives each year in the UK. 

“But worryingly, cervical screening rates have been slowly declining for several years now. So we support effective action that can be shown to halt this decline, particularly among communities where screening rates are already low,” she said.

A Department of Health spokesperson said the report’s recommendations would be considered carefully.

"We would urge every woman invited for screening to make the important decision to take part, as cervical screening can spot changes that might go on to become cancer," they added.

"On the spot smear tests are already available to women whose test is overdue at their GP practice or other health clinics. More than half a million women were screened in this way last year.

"We want to lead the world in cancer care and are investing over £750 million over four years, including £170 million to expand and improve our cancer screening programmes.”