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“I’ve never heard of it”; “It doesn’t apply to me”- Two very different reasons why ethnic minority women are not getting screened for cervical cancer

LauraMarlow22 July 2015

Over the last 10 years several studies in the UK have suggested that women from ethnic minority backgrounds are less likely to attend for cervical screening, the question of why this might be remains. Our recent work published last week in the British Journal of Cancer attempts to shed some light on this.  We surveyed 720 women aged 30-60 years old from Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, African, Caribbean and white British backgrounds, using quota sampling to ensure a large enough sample of women from each ethnic group were included. Compared to the white British women, women in each of the ethnic minority groups were between 5 and 13 times more likely to be a non-attender at screening, i.e. they had not been screened in the last 5 years. This is after adjusting for age, marital status and education level.

Never heard of screening:
Among the ethnic minority women 24% said they had never heard of cervical screening or they had never received an invitation. These women were more likely to have migrated to the UK as adults, not speak English well and have no formal qualifications. This finding is in line with our previous qualitative work which suggests a general lack of awareness about the cervical screening programme. It therefore seems important that we find ways to engage these women with the issue of cancer screening, and raise their awareness of the programme and their eligibility to take part. In England, all women aged 25-64 who are registered with a GP receive regular screening invitations, but our findings suggest that this information isn’t getting through to some groups.

Been screened before, but not recently:
We also identified a different group of non-attenders who had been screened in the past (more than 5 years ago), but had not been screened as recommended, despite receiving a letter reminding them to go. Overall 37% of ethnic minority women fell into this group. These women were more likely to be in the older age group (50-60 years) but other socio-economic factors (such as education level, migration status and language) didn’t predict who fell into this group. Exploring the reasons for being overdue cervical screening in older women is important as recent work suggests that not being screened between the ages of 50 and 64 years is associated with a greater risk of cervical cancer when women are over 65 years. There is also evidence that women over 65 years from both Asian and Black backgrounds have higher rates of cervical cancer. We looked at a range of attitudes to screening and found that women who had not attended as recommended were more likely to think that screening didn’t apply to them, either because they did not have any symptoms or because they were not sexually active. Some considered screening to be important, but had difficulty fitting it in around other commitments. This finding is consistent with our qualitative work where one Bangladeshi woman said; “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, I felt that it wasn’t a great priority for me at that time, everything else was more important”. For these women interventions should be designed to ensure an understanding of the purpose of screening and the potential benefits for asymptomatic women and those who are not currently sexual activity.

In this study and others, we are trying to gain a better understanding of why some people don’t take part in cancer screening. As this paper shows, people’s reasons can be very different, from not knowing anything about screening, to thinking it’s important but being too busy to go. By understanding more about these different reasons, we can help to ensure that everyone makes an informed choice about screening, and is able to take part if they want to. We hope this work will help to reduce inequalities in screening participation and make sure that everyone is properly informed about the purpose of screening.