Smear test rates plunge: why, and what can be done about it?

Shockingly, cervical screening rates are at their lowest for two decades. Only 72% of women aged 25 to 64 are actually having the test in the recommended time frame, down from 75.4% in 2012. What are the risks of missing a smear test, why are women missing them and what can be done to improve uptake rates?

The risks

Around 220,000 women are diagnosed with cervical abnormalities each year and of those, 3,000 women in the UK are told they have cervical cancer. In 2016, 854 deaths from cervical cancer in England were recorded.

Regular cervical screening to detect abnormal cells on the entrance to the womb could reduce this number.

A smear test is something that many women fear, thinking that it is embarrassing, invasive, uncomfortable and painful. However, smear tests prevent 75% of cervical cancers.

It is a very straightforward procedure that lasts around five minutes, and it could potentially be a life saver as it is meant to prevent you from developing invasive cervical cancer.

Why are women missing smear tests?

In the UK, women, and trans men who still have a cervix, between the age of 25 and 49 years old are invited for cervical screening every three years. Those aged 50 to 64 years old are invited every five years. If you’re over 65 years old, you will only be invited for cervical screening if they have had an abnormal test result from a recent smear test.

A recent study by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found that body hang-ups were one of the main reasons for women missing their smear tests.

One in three (35%) said that being embarrassed about their body was one of the main reasons for not attending their appointment.

Others just don’t see it as a priority, with 16% saying they wouldn’t miss the gym to attend and 14% would rather miss a smear than a waxing appointment.

Changing attitudes

In 2008 and 2009, the number of women undergoing the screening increased by 400,000 during Jade Goody’s high-profile battle with cancer. Since then, numbers have continued to fall.

Raising awareness and educating women about the importance and ease of having a smear test is essential to reducing these numbers.

Michelle Keegan recently took to her Instagram page to share her experience of having a smear test and to urge women to attend their routine tests

She admitted that she was “really apprehensive” and “too busy” and was worried about it being “bloody embarrassing”. Yet, in her video, she shared just how simple and straightforward it is, reassuring her followers that it was not painful and took just a couple of minutes.

More open conversations from high-profile personalities could be the key to getting young people to book their appointments.

Improving accessibility

The survey by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust also found accessibility of appointment an issue. Over a quarter of women surveyed said it’s too hard to make an appointment and 30% of those who had never had a smear said they didn’t know where to get the test.

North West London, which has some of the lowest rates of cervical cancer screening (less than 60%) is offering evening and weekend screenings to make it more convenient for women to attend.

Drop in surgeries run by GPs, on-the-spot tests, phone clinics and engagement with the community could all help improve screening rates in the UK.

Ultimately, it’s about educating the public about the simplicity of the procedure and alleviating their concerns. Attending you smear test appointment is the best way for you to keep a check on the health of your cervix. While changing attitudes and making appointments more accessible could hold the key to reducing fatalities from cervical cancer.

More information

  • If you are concerned about smear testing, you should consult your GP. (Don’t have a GP?)
  • If you would prefer to see a consultant gynaecologist then King Edward VII’s Hospital has a fantastic team of eminent specialists.