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‘Health Chatter’: Research Department of Behavioural Science and Health Blog



‘One size fits all’ or ‘made to order’? – How beliefs might explain the sociodemographic profile of people who take part in cancer screening

By Siu Hing Lo, on 21 August 2015

Many studies have looked at the sociodemographic profile of people who take part in cancer screening. For example, one study from our research group showed that people living in the most affluent areas in England were almost twice as likely to participate in bowel cancer screening as those in the most deprived areas (von Wagner et al. 2011 ). Other studies have, among others, shown differences in participation rates between married and unmarried people (Lo et al. 2013 ) and white and non-white groups (Szczepura et al. 2008 ). In our latest study , we examined why there are sociodemographic differences in bowel cancer screening participation.

To do this, we related the sociodemographic differences in participation to key beliefs about bowel cancer screening. These included beliefs about the usefulness of screening even if you do not have symptoms, whether people who are important to you (e.g. family and friends) take part or think you should take part in screening, and how disgusting or embarrassing the screening test is.

Sociodemographic differences in screening participation appeared to be largely explained by beliefs about screening.   However, not all beliefs were related to sociodemographic differences in the same way. Socioeconomic differences in participation were related to all key beliefs. In contrast, differences by marital status were mainly related to beliefs about other people, and ethnic differences were only related to the misconception that screening is only for people with bowel-related symptoms.

When interpreting these results, a few strengths and limitations of this study should be noted. The data were collected through a nationwide population-based omnibus survey on a variety of topics, mostly unrelated to health. The main advantage of this method is that the survey sample was broadly representative of the general population. Nevertheless, our results need to be interpreted with caution due to the cross-sectional nature of the survey. We could not examine causality, and the relationships between sociodemographics, beliefs and screening participation might have been over-estimated.

Notwithstanding, our findings suggest that distinct cognitive patterns may underlie sociodemographic differences in screening participation rates. These need to be well-understood before we can reduce any inequalities in these important health behaviours. Although some beliefs seem to be common to different types of sociodemographic inequalities, others are not. Future research should examine whether ‘tailored’ (made to order) invitation materials are more effective at engaging different demographic groups than the current ‘one size fits all’ approach.


Lo, S.H., Waller, J., Vrinten, C., Kobayashi, L. & C. von Wagner (2015), ‘Social cognitive mediators of sociodemographic differences in colorectal cancer screening uptake’ BioMed Research International, in press.

Lo, S. H., Waller, J. Wardle, J. & C. von Wagner (2013), “Comparing barriers to colorectal cancer screening with barriers to breast and cervical screening: a population-based survey of screening-age women in Great Britain,” Journal of Medical Screening, 20:2, 73–79.

Szczepura, A. Price, C. & A. Gumber (2008), “Breast and bowel cancer screening uptake patterns over 15 years for UK South Asian ethnic minority populations, corrected for differences in socio-demographic characteristics,” BMC Public Health, 8, article 346.

von Wagner, C. Baio, G., Raine, R. et al. (2011), “Inequalities in participation in an organized national colorectal cancer screening programme: results from the first 2.6 million invitations in England,” International Journal of Epidemiology, 40: 3, 712–718.