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Doctors need to encourage increased uptake of smear tests

Tuesday 21st June 2016
Doctors need to take action to encourage women over 50 to undergo smear tests. Image: Dangubic via iStock
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UK doctors are being urged to encourage greater uptake of smear tests among over-50s, as new figures reveal that a growing number of women in this age category are not taking their gynaecological health as seriously as they should.

Health experts are concerned that diagnoses of cervical cancer will increase over the coming years unless more women in this age category take advantage of the regular smear tests they are offered.

But why are so many females aged 50 and over skipping smear tests? And why is it so important that they have a cervical check-up at least every five years?

Why are women skipping smear tests?

Research carried out by the charity Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust and older people's online forum Gransnet led to the discovery that one in three women aged 50 and above has skipped a smear test in the past, despite the fact they are invited to attend them by their doctors at five-year intervals.

The charity conducted a survey to find out why females didn't attend the smear test appointments they were offered, in light of the fact that cervical screening uptake has fallen to 72 per cent - its lowest level for 18 years.

Results showed that one-quarter of women struggled to book an appointment at a time that was convenient to their schedule, causing them to miss it altogether, while one-third shied away from a smear test because they were embarrassed.

Meanwhile, one in five respondents said they had found previous smears too painful, meaning they were reluctant to visit their doctor for further tests.

However, diagnoses of cervical cancer - which smear tests are designed to prevent - have increased significantly in recent years, with 3,207 women per year, or eight or nine every day, being told they have the potentially life-threatening disease.

Despite this, the report found that 21 per cent of females over 50 are not aware that regular screening can reduce their risk of being diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Robert Music, chief executive of Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, commented: "Cervical cancer is a preventable disease, so it is extremely worrying that diagnoses have risen.

"Women aged 50 to 64 are of particular concern, as they are more likely to receive an advanced stage diagnosis, which means more invasive treatment, poorer health outcomes and increased risk of loss of life."

Why smear tests are so important

Healthcare experts are concerned that if women continue to miss their smear tests at the same rate they are at the moment, the number of cervical cancer diagnoses throughout the UK by 2040 would increase by 16 per cent for 60 to 64 year-olds, alongside rising by 85 per cent among women aged between 70 and 74.

However, 38 per cent of the women who were questioned by Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust said they would be more likely to take up the NHS's offer of regular cervical screening if they were sent an appointment along with their smear test invitation.

In addition, 21 per cent said they would like to see more flexible GP opening hours, while 31 per cent wished they were provided with information more relevant to their age group when being sent an appointment invite.

Almost one-quarter (23 per cent) of those surveyed said they wanted more details of the risks of failing to attend a cervical screening appointment and the same percentage also expressed a desire to be able to perform a self HPV test to prevent them from needing to visit a doctor.

With all of this in mind, doctors may find that uptake of cervical screening could increase if women are offered appointments directly and do not need to make arrangements themselves.

What's more, shortening the intervals at which women aged between 50 and 64 are invited for smear tests could also see uptake improve, as they are currently only offered screening every five years, while females aged from 25 to 49 are invited for a smear every three years.

Public health minister Jane Ellison stated: "Even as we get older, it is important that we spot any abnormalities early so we have a better chance of preventing cervical cancer."

Therefore, by increasing the regularity of cervical screening for older women and by actively encouraging them to attend appointments by setting the date and time for them, the number of cervical cancer diagnoses among over-50s could decrease and more lives could be saved.

Written by James Puckle

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