‘Health Chatter’: Research Department of Behavioural Science and Health Blog
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    When women are too busy for cervical screening or have had a bad experience, could HPV self-sampling be an appealing alternative?

    By Laura Marlow, on 17 April 2018

    By Kirsty Bennett and Laura Marlow

    In the UK, women aged 25 to 64 are regularly invited for cervical screening (the ‘smear test’ or ‘Pap test’). While uptake of cervical screening is generally high, it has been declining in recent years, and in 2017 just over a quarter of women did not attend screening. Studies exploring screening non-attendance suggest a wide range of reasons that women do not go, including practical barriers such as difficulties arranging appointments, emotional barriers including embarrassment and fear of what the test might find and low perceived risk of cervical cancer.

    One of our previous blogs described how most non-participants at screening are aware of screening and have made a decision about future attendance. The majority of these intend to go despite currently being overdue or unscreened, but some have made an active decision not to attend for screening in future. In our latest study, funded by Cancer Research UK as part of a larger project on cervical screening, we explored barriers to cervical screening among 426 women who had made an active decision not to attend in the future, and compared them with 117 women who intended to be screened in the future.

    Participants were shown sixteen possible barriers which covered a variety of reasons why some women might not attend screening, and they were asked to choose the ones that applied to them. Women who had made an active decision not to be screened were more likely than the ‘intenders’ to say that screening wasn’t relevant to them because of their sexual behaviour (reported by 27%).  Cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted infection (HPV, or human papillomavirus – see below), so some women had decided not to go for screening because they were no longer sexually active, or had been in the same relationship for a long time.  They also reported having more important things to worry about than screening (reported by 12%) and some said they had weighed up the risks and benefits and decided it was not worth getting screened (reported by 13%).

    We went on to ask women about their interest in HPV self-sampling. HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection and nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by this virus. It can take many years for an HPV infection to develop into cervical cancer so a woman’s current sexual behaviour does not necessarily reflect her current risk. Although it’s not offered by the NHS Cervical Screening Programme at the moment, HPV self-sampling allows women to collect a sample themselves, usually by using a vaginal swab. The sample is then sent to a laboratory and tested for HPV. Many of the women who had decided not to attend cervical screening (66%) indicated that they would be interested in self-sampling. Self-sampling seemed to be particularly appealing to women who reported a bad experience of screening in the past, and those who were too busy or embarrassed to attend. Shifting the perceived cost-benefit ratio for these women by offering HPV self-sampling might increase screening participation in this group. Studies in several countries have found that offering self-sampling to women who don’t attend for screening can be a very effective way of increasing participation.  With the shift to HPV primary screening planned for 2019 in England, self-sampling may become a feasible option for some women.

    Reference:

    Kirsty F Bennett KF, Waller J, Chorley AJ, Ferrer RA, Haddrell JB, Marlow LAV. Barriers to cervical screening and interest in self-sampling among women who actively decline screening. Journal of Medical Screening. Published online.

    Unpicking the differences between types of cervical screening non-attenders

    By Laura Marlow, on 21 March 2018

    Every year around 28% of women who are eligible for cervical screening do not attend as recommended. Last year we blogged about a paper we had published exploring how these women can be divided into five broad sub-types; 1) unaware of screening, 2) unengaged with screening, 3) undecided about whether to go for screening, 4) decided not to go for screening and 5) decided to go but not yet gone. We also found some patterns in the way these different non-attender types are distributed across different groups of the population. For example, we found that women from ethnic minority groups were more likely to be unaware of screening and older women were more likely to have decided not to go. Understanding these patterns will help us to decide how interventions might be shaped differently for different types of non-attenders. For example, since women from ethnic minority groups are more likely to be unaware of cancer screening, targeted public health campaigns aimed at raising awareness within ethnic minority communities could be beneficial.

    More recently, we have been delving a bit deeper and have tried to unpick some of the psychological and behavioural differences between the most common non-attender groups. Published in the journal Preventive Medicine this week, our new work shows some interesting findings. Most notably we showed that women who are unaware of screening tend to be more fatalistic, both about life in general and about cancer. They also have more negative beliefs about cancer outcomes. Women who had decided not to be screened frequently perceived themselves to be at lower risk of cervical cancer. And for women who were unengaged with screening, both more fatalistic beliefs and lower perceived risk were relevant. Health behaviours also varied between the different groups, with unaware women less likely to have seen a GP recently, and unengaged women less likely to seek out health information and more likely to actively avoid cancer information in the media.

    This work will help us to identify the content of the messages that we might use for specific types of non-attenders. Interventions to raise awareness of screening should include messages that address fatalistic and negative beliefs about cancer. By contrast, information for women who have decided not to be screened may need to ensure they have an accurate knowledge of their risk of cervical cancer and that they understand the benefits of screening. This will help make sure women who decide not to take part are making an informed choice. Our next step it to outline what these interventions might look like – watch this space!

    “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

    By Laura Marlow, on 22 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.