Putting screening non-attendance under the microscope – understanding why some women don’t go for smear tests
By Jo Waller, on 26 April 2016
Authors: Amanda Chorley and Jo Waller
If you are a woman aged 25 or over, there is a good chance you have attended cervical screening (the smear or Pap test) at least once. In England last year, just under three quarters of women were ‘up to date’ with cervical screening , meaning that over a quarter of women are not up to date. As cervical screening, in addition to HPV vaccination, is one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer it is important to understand why some women do not attend.
Many studies have asked women about their feelings towards and experiences of cervical screening. We carried out a review of studies  from the UK, Australia, Sweden and South Korea – countries where women are automatically invited for screening on a regular basis.
By pulling together findings from across 39 studies, we identified two main themes. Firstly women considered whether they should go for screening – were they at risk of cervical cancer? How serious was the outcome? And is screening a useful way of dealing with that threat? Secondly, women who had previously been for screening recounted their experiences, and how this made them feel about going again.
Should I go for screening?
In deciding whether they should go for cervical screening or not, women considered whether they were at risk of cervical cancer, and therefore if screening was relevant to them. Their decisions were often based on ideas of the causes of cervical cancer, such as number of sexual partners. Women also considered their current life stage (both biological such as menopause, and social such as being the mother of young children), and their family history of cervical (and other) cancer.
Women differed in whether they thought cervical screening was worthwhile. Some talked about the benefits of early detection of cancer (e.g. better survival or ‘peace of mind’). Others believed that they would know if they had an illness as serious as cancer, without screening, or were cynical about the motives of screening programmes. The final group were aware of screening, but were unsure of its importance. These women were often from more deprived backgrounds, or were from ethnic minority groups.
Screening is a big deal
It was clear from women’s accounts that one bad experience of screening could make them avoid screening in the future. However it is important to remember that it is possible that women who have had bad experiences are perhaps more likely to take part in studies about screening than women who do not view screening as a big deal.
Some women found the prospect of screening threatening, either through the risk of being given a diagnosis of cervical cancer, the belief that you might get an infection from unclean instruments, or through the anxiety screening and the wait for results could cause. Some women reported a different kind of threat. It was believed that a positive result could mark you as “promiscuous”, and for some women (especially those from ethnic minority groups) simply attending screening could suggest to other people that you were sexually active.
Cervical screening was also seen as a big deal because of physical aspects, such as pain, or disliking the speculum. For others emotional aspects were more important. In particular, some women reported feelings of embarrassment, shame, and a loss of control during screening, due to the unusual situation in which you are expected to expose your genitals to a relative stranger.
Because of this, women across studies had a strong preference for female nurse or doctor for cervical screening.
These are not the only reasons women do not attend screening. Some women talked about how they would like to go for screening, but competing priorities, such as childcare and work, or inconvenient appointment times or clinic locations meant that they could not easily attend. Women from ethnic minority groups also reported specific problems, such as racist treatment from health professionals, and difficulty in accessing information about screening due to a lack of translated material.
What does this mean?
Our findings show that women are not all alike in their reasons for not attending screening. Some do not think screening is relevant for them and have made a conscious decision not to go. Others have had a bad experience and wish to avoid that happening again. Yet other women would like to attend screening, but life gets in the way. And of course cervical screening is not a one-off event. Women will continue to be invited over a period of decades, and factors that were important at one stage of a woman’s life may be more or less important in the future.
Knowing this allows us to develop different kinds of information and support for women depending on which factors are most important to them. We are now also able to carry out further research to try and find out whether certain factors are more likely to be considered important by certain groups of women. Our review also made it clear that the opinions of women who have never attended, or even heard of screening, have hardly been explored. We hope to interview women from these groups in the coming months, and find out more about their barriers to cervical screening.
 Chorley AJ, Marlow LAV, Forster AS, Haddrell JB, Waller J. Experiences of cervical screening and barriers to participation in the context of an organised programme: a systematic review and thematic synthesis. Psycho-Oncol. 2016.