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VIDEO: Thousands waiting too long for smear test results

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Published by Emma Carton at 7:16am 9th October 2018. (Updated at 5:18pm 9th October 2018)

It has emerged more than three quarters of women who have smear tests in Cornwall are waiting too long to get their results.

Figures from Public Health England show that almost 22,000 were screened for cervical cancer in the year to July.

A Freedom of Information request has revealed that four in five, or 79%, had not heard back within the mandatory two-week window.

More than three million results were sent out in England over the same period, and almost half of them were late.

Leading cancer charities have described the figures as "concerning", adding that long waits could cause increased anxiety at an already stressful time.

Only 16 out of 195 Clinical Commissioning Groups met the threshold for providing 98% of results within two weeks and one - East Staffordshire - failed to get any results out on time.

"Lots of people have approached us through our helpline saying they are waiting 12, 14, 16 weeks for their results.

"It is creating anxiety which is not a healthy thing, and our concern is that it could put women off attending their appointments.

"With screening attendance already at a 20-year low, that is worrying".

Robert Music, Jo's Trust

Robert added that it was believed survival rates for women who do develop cervical cancer would be unaffected by the increased waits, but that this could not be certain in every case.

Impending changes to the way cervical screenings are carried out are being blamed for the backlog of test results across the country.

A new test which will look for the cancer-causing HPV virus straight away rather than for abnormal cells in the cervix will be rolled out across the whole of England in 2019.

According to Mr Music, fewer cytologists - the scientists who study the test samples - will be needed with the new method, and this has caused shortages of staff as they leave for new jobs ahead of the change.

Cancer Research UK said it understood the challenge the NHS was facing ahead of the HPV switch, but said it was important for turnaround times to be reduced "as quickly as possible".

Jo's Trust says a "complex and fragmented" cervical screening system in England is both causing problems for the delivery of services and preventing them from being addressed.

NHS England has overarching responsibility for delivering the screening programme but Public Health England also plays a part in setting and maintaining standards.

Women can have a cervical screening appointment with a GP but can also attend sexual health centres, which are run by local authorities.

The smear samples are then sent away to be tested at one of dozens of cytology laboratories across the country.

The charity has been calling for a review of the structure to improve access and accountability.

In the meantime, Mr Music says it is important women are not put off attending their appointments:

"Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that is preventable.

"Cervical screenings prevent 75% of cervical cancers and save more than 5,000 lives every year.

"So please go to your test if you're due one".

Robert Music

The NHS in the Duchy has told Pirate FM that waits are not as high as some parts of the country and it is working to clear the backlog.

"We're doing all we can to bring down waiting times for the smear-test results, which are clearly too long. The fundamental issue is shortage of skilled staff and capacity across the NHS, with some parts of the country also experiencing long waits.

"We've now got agreement from national level to bring in the new test this autumn, rather than next year like the rest of the NHS. The test's quicker as well as better, so it'll also help bring down the waiting time. In the longer term, tens of thousands of women will benefit from the new system.

"We recognise that the waits will cause some anxiety, but our clinical advice is that the risk to women in the backlog is low. That's because the smear test isn't a cancer test, but designed to spot early pre-cancerous changes so these can be tackled before they become a danger. In those circumstances, a few weeks extra is unlikely to have any impact at all for any women affected".

Dr Caroline Gamlin, NHS England's Medical Director in South-West South

Read more advice about cervical cancer from Jo's Trust or watch how to spot the signs...

 

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