Many women in the UK have a negative opinion about cervical smear testing. As such, cervical screening rates have hit a 20-year low in the UK, with almost one in three eligible women failing to have the beneficial test done.

If opinions remain negative, thousands of lives may be lost unnecessarily in the next decade to cervical cancer that could have been detected early.

Cervical cancer screening UK

The smear test, also known as cervical screening, is a simple procedure. It takes less than one minute to perform the screening, during which a medical professional collects a sample of cells from the cervix using a small, soft brush. However, many women avoid receiving cervical screening because they view the test as being intrusive, scary, embarrassing and painful.

Women under the age of 35 years are the most concerning population, as their screening rates are 18 percentage points lower than the national target of 80%.

Adults age 19–39 are often referred to as the “wellness conscious generation,” and they stereotypically look for medical answers online content rather than at a doctors’ visit. These adults also frequently strive to have a balanced lifestyle by focusing on nutrition and physical wellbeing. Even though cervical screening aims to improve physical wellbeing, it is still often disregarded.

It is important for doctors to understand the importance of convenience to this population and for them to embrace the use of technology; hence, doctors should look to recruit and provide results via phone or text.

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Many women have noted that they hesitated to receive cervical screening due to the idea of a stranger examining them. To this extent, the National Health Service (NHS) England’s pilot scheme of “self-sample” human papillomavirus (HPV) kits may help to alleviate this problem.

Social media and media advertising

In January 2019, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust tried to improve recruitment rates by producing social media advertising campaigns called “#SmearforSmear.” The campaign seemed to be a success, as the hashtag gained 14,975 twitter mentions and produced a 41% increase in traffic to the charity’s landing page within the first week. However, the campaign was criticised for only focusing on improving attendance and not addressing the negative perceptions women have of the test.

On 5 March the UK government launched the first media advertising campaign called Cervical Screening Saves Lives, in a bid to improve recruitment. The aim of the campaign is to reframe the conversation around cervical screening by focusing on assurance and positivity. Conversations surrounding cervical screening need to become normalized, as happened with conversations about menstruation. Thus, the advertisements may help to start discussions between mothers and daughters.

The campaign has a clear focus on demographics with low uptakes, such as young women; those from lower socio-economic groups; women of black, Asian, or other minority ethnicities; and members of the LGBTQ+ community. This campaign should help to reduce specific screening barriers including concerns over pain and embarrassment, cultural attitudes and misunderstandings; for example, lesbians and transgender men with a cervix are still recommended to receive screenings.

The UK government along with charities and celebrities are attempting to reduce misconceptions surrounding the test and improve accessibility. These steps are essential in order to increase screening uptake and reduce the number of preventable deaths.