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A new test for cervical screening is being rolled out, but how do the screening test results make women feel?

By Jo Waller, on 3 July 2019

By Emily McBride and Jo Waller

You might have heard that cervical screening is changing in England. If not, we’ve got you covered. In this post, we’re going to talk about the new cervical screening approach (called HPV primary screening), as well as our recently published research examining the way the test results make women feel.

What will happen under the new approach to cervical screening?

Soon all women who get screened in England will be tested for human papillomavirus (HPV), using an approach called HPV primary screening. HPV is a really common sexually transmitted infection which the body usually clears it on its own without it causing any problems. In fact, 4 out of 5 women have HPV at some point in their life. Sometimes, however, when the body can’t clear HPV, the virus can cause abnormal cells in the cervix to develop. With HPV primary screening, women who test positive for HPV will also have the cells in their cervix checked for any abnormal changes. However, women who test negative for HPV don’t get checked for abnormal cells because their risk of cervical cancer is really low – they don’t need to come back to screening again for another 3-5 years. Researchers have estimated that this new and improved screening approach will prevent an extra 500 cervical cancers a year in England. Screening can prevent cancer by picking up and treating cell changes before they develop into cancer.

How did women in our study feel after receiving their cervical screening test results?

Over the last few years, we’ve been doing a survey with women in areas where HPV primary screening has been tried out. We wanted to know how women felt about receiving the different test results at HPV primary screening compared with standard screening results. One test result was of particular interest to us because it’s new using this approach – HPV positive with normal cells (no abnormal changes). Women getting this result were asked to come back to screening 12 months later to see whether their body had cleared the HPV and to check no abnormal cells had developed. We thought it was possible that these women might feel anxious about being told they had HPV but having to wait 12 months to be screened again.

So what did we find? Well, women in the new group (HPV positive with normal cells) tended to be more anxious than those with normal results, and to be more worried about the result and about cervical cancer.  But reassuringly, those who had come back for a second HPV test 12 months after their first positive result had similar anxiety levels to those getting a normal result.  This suggests that being told you have HPV for the first time leads to feelings of anxiety and worry, but these are probably temporary for most women.

What do our research findings mean for cervical screening?

As the switch to HPV testing is introduced across the country, it’s really important for women taking part in screening to understand what the test is for and what the results will mean. Many women who go for screening don’t always read the information that’s sent with their invitation. This means practice nurses and other health professionals delivering screening have a key role to play in talking to women, making sure they understand what the change to the programme means, and encouraging them to read the new cervical screening leaflet. It’s also really important that health professionals and the cervical screening programme help support women who are anxious and are able to address the common concerns. We’re continuing to work closely with the NHS and Public Health England to help word HPV primary screening result letters. We also recently co-created a ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ information section to go alongside the HPV positive result letters, which we hope will help to mitigate unnecessary anxiety.

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