The falling cervical screening rates in younger women could be explained by their hectic lifestyles
It is a familiar story, every day you add a few more things on your to-do list, book a haircut; pay that cheque in; send a birthday card to your best friend. In theory you should tick them off in order, first on first done or even better prioritise, ticking off the most important jobs first. In reality the list grows and grows and although you tick off a few jobs each week (if you don’t post that birthday card before you friend’s birthday, it won’t be worth posting it), there are a handful of old-timers that remain week after week, month after month. And going for a smear test might be one of these.
In our first blog we talked about how our research suggests the more some people think about the nitty gritty of doing a screening test, the less appealing it is to them. Another reason for not doing screening could be that it simply drops to the bottom of your list, because life gets in the way. Our recent study suggests that this could be one reason why fewer young women are going for cervical screening in England. Since 1999, there’s been a drop of 12% in attendance for smear tests in 25-29 year olds, and we’ve been trying to understand why.
We interviewed and ran focus groups with 46 women who weren’t up to date with their smear tests, making sure we included young and older women so we could compare them. The women discussed their reasons for not going for screening. There seemed to be two distinct patterns of non-attendance. Some of the women described how they had actively decided not to be screened. These women either felt they were not at risk of cervical cancer or had weighed up the risks and benefits of screening and decided not to attend. The second group of women described how although they intended to go for screening, they did not get round to it. A variety of reasons were given, such as finding it difficult to make appointments to fit in with work commitments or childcare arrangements and feeling that cervical screening was at the bottom of their list: “I’ve got to have blood tests, I’ve got to go to the dentist, I’ve got to get my hair cut, so what’s low in priority, and a cervical smear test would be right down there I think”. Interestingly, it seemed to be the older women who were making informed decisions not to attend, while the younger women just didn’t get round to going.
The findings complement a survey study that we published in 2009. The study included a population-based sample of 580 women aged 26-64 years. Women answered questions about their cervical screening uptake and selected which statements they agreed with from a list of possible barriers to attending screening. While the most common barrier was embarrassment, this was chosen equally by women who did and did not attend screening regularly. The second most common barrier was: “I intend to go… but don’t always get round to it”. This barrier was chosen more by women in the younger age group (26-34 years: 25%) than the older age group (55-64 years: 8%) and alongside “it is difficult to get an appointment” and “I do not trust the smear test” was associated with being overdue for screening.
Our findings have some interesting implications for how cancer screening is offered to younger women. Using prompts (e.g. advertisements or text reminders) could be a useful way of overcoming the gap between intention and behaviour, reminding women that ‘Go for a smear’ is still on their to-do list. Making screening more convenient (e.g. available at locations near work places or offering extended clinic hours) could also make it easier for women to fit in going for a smear test. It can then be marked job done.
Waller J, Jackowska M, Marlow L, Wardle J. Exploring age differences in reasons for non-attendance for cervical screening: a qualitative study. BJOG, in press. DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-0528.2011.03030.x
Waller J, Bartoszek M, Marlow L, Wardle J. (2009) Barriers to cervical cancer screening attendance in England: a population-based survey. Journal of Medical Screening, 16:199-204. DOI: 10.1258/jms.2009.009073