Authors: Amanda Chorley, Laura Marlow, Jo Waller
One of our previous blogs discussed how rates of cervical screening (aka the smear test, or pap test) have been declining in the UK. Last year, screening uptake rates fell to 72.7%, meaning that over a quarter of women had not been screened as recommended (1). A better understanding of why women are not being screened is vital. If women are making informed decisions not to attend this is perfectly acceptable, but if women do not understand cervical screening or find it difficult to attend for other reasons (e.g. inconvenient appointment times), interventions to address this are important. Treating women who do not attend screening as a single group of “non-participants” means those with very different screening experiences and intentions are considered to be the same. Unsurprisingly this means that “one size fits all” interventions to increase screening participation do not have large effects, as they are unlikely to be suited to individual women’s differing needs.
In our latest study published in the European Journal of Cancer last week, we used the Precaution Adoption Process Model (PAPM)(2) to try and improve our understanding of the ways in which women who do not attend screening may differ. The PAPM is a model from behavioural science which states that before carrying out a health behaviour (in this case cervical screening), a person must move through a number of stages. A person must first be aware of the health behaviour and engaged with it before they can make a decision whether or not to carry it out. If they do decide to carry out the behaviour, they must then overcome any barriers which may be in the way of this (e.g. getting to the screening appointment). Importantly, the PAPM also includes the possibility for people to make an active decision to not participate in the behaviour. By classifying women according to the PAPM we hoped to identify what the most common type of screening non-participant is, and whether women within a particular group tend to have shared characteristics.
793 (27%) of the 3113 women we surveyed were either overdue for screening (including those who had never had a smear test) or said they did not plan to go for screening when next invited. Of these non-participating women, just over half said that they do intend to go. These women tended to be younger than women who were up to date with screening, and were more likely to be single and from less affluent backgrounds. Perhaps more surprisingly, given the fact that all should have received an invitation and leaflet about screening as part of the NHS programme, 28% of non-participating women said that they had never heard of cervical screening, smear or pap tests, even after being shown a photo of the procedure. These women were more likely to be younger and from ethnic minority and less affluent backgrounds, and to have English as a second language. Finally, 15% of non-participating women said that they had made a decision not to be screened in the future. These women tended to be older, and most had been screened before. As with the other two groups, they were also more likely to be from less affluent backgrounds.
The differences between these groups of non-participants show how important it is to consider the different reasons for non-participation. Changes such as more flexible clinic hours or text message reminders may help women who do want to go for screening but have found it hard to get around to it. However, for women who are unaware of cervical screening, more accessible information about the programme is a vital first step towards making an informed choice about whether to participate or not. As we found that unaware women were more likely to be from ethnic minority backgrounds and less likely to speak English as their first language, it may be helpful to provide information in more languages and through TV or radio advertisements rather than just using written materials. Choosing not to be screened is a legitimate choice, and one that needs to be respected by medical professionals. However, in order for women to make an informed choice it is important that they have access to relevant information, including the benefits, risks, and limitations of screening. For some of the women who have decided not to go in the future, it may be the case that they have sought out this information. For other women the decision not to go for further screening may be due to a previous bad experience.
Our survey goes some way to showing that there is not just one type of cervical screening non-participant, but different groups of women with different experiences, choices, and needs. In the future we hope to look further into these differences, both between and within the different groups described in this post.
1. Screening and Immunisations team ND. Cervical screening programme: England, 2015-16. Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2016, p. 1 – 76.
2. Weinstein N. The Precaution Adoption Process. Health Psychology. 1988; 7: 31.