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Backlog of 150,000 cervical screenings revealed as all major health screenings failing to hit targets

A backlog of more than 150,000 cervical screening samples awaiting testing has built up in laboratories across England, according to a damning report on NHS screenings by the National Audit Office (NAO).

The watchdog found that all three of the main health screening programmes in England – bowel, breast or cervical – failed to meet their target last year.

Most alarmingly, delays in cervical screening results affected half of women tested, with the NAO pointing to staffing shortages, outdated IT systems, and changes to testing arrangements as the cause of the huge backlog.

At one stage last year only one in three women undergoing a smear test received their results within the recommended 14 days, and the Department of Health and Social Care’s expectations that 98% of women should receive results within this time hasn’t been met since November 2015.

The figures suggest hundreds of thousands of women are being left waiting to find out if they will need further tests or treatment for abnormal or cancerous cells, leading to criticism from charities and MPs.

Changes in the screening programmes were announced in 2016, but the NAO said this is not expected to be completed until 2020, which it said was partly responsible.

The move will reduce the number of laboratories needed for screening from 48 to just nine, which, according to the NAO, has led to large numbers of staff leaving “in search of greater job security,” which in turn has led to a “decline in performance against turnaround targets.”

The NAO’s report said health screening is inconsistent across different areas in England, but all screening programmes failed to meet the standard target for the percentage of people attending appointments in 2017-18.

The bowel screening programme performed best, missing its 60% target by 0.4%; and all except the cervical programme met their ‘lower threshold’ target.

The report follows two recent incidents regarding breast and cervical screenings where thousands of women were found not to have been sent invitations, raising concerns about the management and organisation of the screening programmes.

NHS England admitted that the incidents have “raised questions about the effectiveness of governance arrangements in place to prevent such issues.”

Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “It is worrying that not everyone who is eligible to take part in screening programmes is doing so.

“It is unacceptable that these important screening programmes are being let down by complex and ageing IT.

“The DHSC, NHS England and Public Health England need to get this fixed.”

Robert Music, the chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, added that it had had a number of women reach out over concerns about delays to their results, and said it was “simply not fair that women should be put under undue stress as a result of failings in the programme management.”

Image credit - vitapix


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