Let’s Mark International Women’s Day by Improving Cancer Screening for UK Women
We must make cancer screening accessible to all women in the UK by ensuring preventative healthcare is a priority.
This week marks International Women’s Day, a global event that celebrates the historical, cultural, and political achievements of women and highlights gender inequality.
One of the six key missions of this year’s International Women’s Day is “to empower women’s choices in health”. To support this mission, the results of an important new survey into women’s health have been published.
The worldwide survey was commissioned by Hologic, a company that specialises in early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of women’s health issues such as breast and cervical cancers.
The Hologic Global Women’s Health Index (HGWHI) was undertaken as part of the Gallup World Poll. With insights from over 120,000 people, in 140 languages from 116 different countries the HGWHI provides the most comprehensive picture of women’s health around the world.
“As a company that provides much of the technology that underpins breast cancer and cervical cancer screening across the globe, we wanted to understand how women’s access to both preventative care and treatment differs around the world, including in the UK,” Tanja Brycker, Hologic’s VP International Strategic Development, Breast & Skeletal Health and Gynaecological Surgical Solutions, explains to The House. “This is critical both in understanding the barriers that currently prevent women from accessing services and also for developing new approaches that are quicker, more efficient, and able to target care where it is most needed.”
The survey identifies an urgent need for the UK to embrace new technologies to improve preventative approaches to women’s cancer care. Although the UK ranked 12th overall for its approach to women’s health, when it came to preventative care it lagged behind comparable countries, ranking only 70th in the global index.
Liz Twist MP, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Women’s Health, believes that beneath this headline figure is a specific challenge around health inequalities that we need to address as a nation. “I have been disappointed to hear from doctors and patients about the unacceptable variation in women’s ability to access medical care based on their background and where they live,” she tells us. “This contributes to staggering health inequalities between women across the country, with women in deprived areas more likely to get cervical cancer, but less likely to attend screening.”
Fellow Women’s Health APPG member Cherilyn Mackrory MP also believes that the UK’s shortfall in preventative care is, quite simply, putting women’s lives at risk.
“This timely report highlights the fact that too many UK women are still slipping through the net when it comes to preventative cancer care,” she explains to The House. “With cancers that affect women, we know that early diagnosis is absolutely key to positive clinical outcomes. Ultimately, improving screening services will protect women’s health and save women’s lives.”
The data revealed in the report supports the view of both MPs that many at risk UK women are not accessing existing screening programmes. NHS guidelines are that women aged 50 to 71 should attend breast screening every three years. However, the survey suggests that only 14% of UK women in this age group were tested for cancer in the previous 12 months. This figure is far below what would be expected.
“The Covid pandemic meant that some women were unable to access the screening services they rely on to keep them well,” says Mackrory. “This has created a backlog which is now putting women’s health at risk. As the focus switches to the future, we need to both increase awareness of existing services and develop new approaches that draw on the latest clinical technology and expertise.”
I welcome that the Government is taking action with its upcoming women’s health strategy
Hologic’s Tanja Brycker agrees with Mackrory that driving up UK performance in preventative cancer care demands a combination of initiatives to increase awareness, access and investment in new technologies that are able to deliver cancer screening more quickly and accurately.
For instance, new Artificial Intelligence-led approaches in breast cancer screening have the potential to improve accuracy and efficiency, by initially reviewing a mammogram and proving a radiographer with an indication of which patients may warrant further investigation. The wide-scale adoption of such technology could significantly increase the UK’s screening capacity, keeping more women healthy. Similarly, new and more accurate 3D mammography techniques are now able to deliver improved accuracy. This can improve detection rates and reduce the number of unnecessary recalls which cause fear, anxiety, and stress for patients.
Likewise, for cervical cancer screening, technologies such as HPV mRNA testing for primary cervical cancer screening provide improved specificity of results, leading to a reduction in women recalled for additional testing and procedures such as colposcopies. Digital Cytology – a cloud based, AI driven imaging platform - allows cyto-screeners to review images remotely, meaning that they can be distributed to screeners remotely across a network, wherever there is spare capacity, speeding up the time from initial test to diagnosis.
Liz Twist believes that accelerating adoption of new technologies can potentially play a critical role in reducing the “staggering health inequalities” that exist within women’s cancer care. “As the Government looks to invest in diagnostics, it is vital to prioritise diagnostics and screening for women’s health conditions,” she tells us. “This can ensure that women from all backgrounds have equal access to the care they need.”
Cherilyn Mackrory agrees with Twist that new diagnostic tools are vital in tackling health inequalities and delivering better preventative cancer services for women in the UK. “It is a sobering fact that every year women in the UK die because their cancer was diagnosed too late,” she reminds us. “This International Women’s Day is an opportunity for all organisations involved in delivering healthcare to simply say, ‘UK women deserve better’”.
Theo Clarke MP, who sits on the Women and Equalities Select Committee, adds:
“Preventative healthcare plays an important role in helping people live longer, healthier lives. Sadly many women do not always attend vital screening appointments. I welcome that the Government is taking action with its upcoming women’s health strategy and, for International Women’s Day, I urge eligible women to book their smear test, breast cancer screening and other preventative healthcare appointments as soon as possible.”
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