In the UK, women are invited for cervical screening (the ‘smear test’) between the ages of 25 and 64, and although uptake is high it has been falling for some years across all age groups (1). A number of studies have focused on improving uptake among younger women (2), but a recent BMJ article called for work to focus on the needs of ‘older’ women too, given that half of all cervical cancer deaths are in women over 50 (3). One particular issue for older women can be that screening becomes more painful following the menopause. Lower oestrogen levels can cause thinning and dryness of the vaginal walls and it’s estimated that half of all post-menopausal women have these symptoms. This can mean that inserting the speculum (the instrument used to open the vagina for examination) is particularly painful for some ‘older’ women. Dr Anita Lim at King’s College London has been awarded funding by Cancer Research UK to explore a different procedure for collecting samples without a speculum. Samples collected without the speculum would be tested for human papillomavirus (HPV) and women would only need to have further examination if they were found to be HPV positive.
Collaborating with Dr Lim, we led some exploratory work to assess the acceptability of this potential alternative (4). Published online last week in the Journal of Medical Screening, the work included focus groups and interviews with 38 women aged 50-64 who had a variety of cervical screening histories (‘up to date’, ‘overdue’ and ‘never been screened’). As expected, many of the women reported negative experiences of the speculum during cervical screening and found its insertion was sometimes painful, particularly after the menopause. Women were generally positive about the idea of screening without a speculum and thought it would be less invasive than the current procedure. However, some women were concerned that this method could be less accurate, because the swab might touch other areas and collect unwanted cells, and the sample-taker would not be able to clearly see the cervix without a speculum. Women said they would want sufficient information and reassurance, particularly about the effectiveness of non-speculum sampling compared to current cervical screening.
The findings from this study suggest that HPV testing on clinician-collected samples taken without a speculum could be an acceptable alternative to conventional cervical screening. It might be particularly useful for older women who have had difficulty with the speculum examination, potentially due to post-menopausal changes. Dr Lim will continue to explore the acceptability of introducing clinician-collected non-speculum sampling alongside assessing how well the test works, but preliminary work suggests introducing this procedure could improve screening uptake among 50-64 year-olds who have put off attending.
- Screening and Immunisations team. Cervical screening programme: England, 2016-17. Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2017, p. 1 – 76.
- Kitchener HC et al. A cluster randomised trial of strategies to increase cervical screening uptake at first invitation (STRATEGIC). Health Technol Assess 2016, 20(68):1-138.
- Sherman SM et al. Cervical cancer is not just a young woman’s disease. BMJ 2015, 350:h2729.
- Freeman et al. Acceptability of non-speculum clinician sampling for cervical screening in older women: A qualitative study. JMS, in press.