More than 1.25 million women waited too long for smear test results last year, data shows, as MPs accused the government of “losing its grip” on cancer screening.
A report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) criticised NHS England, Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) for problems with cancer screening, which see too few people screened for diseases such as bowel and cervical cancer.
Failing IT systems have been blamed – some of which have had issues since 2011. On top of that, these systems are not in place to track all people eligible for tests.
This lack of oversight means major issues with inviting women for screening were not picked up. There are also stark inequalities across geographical regions in who is screened and who gets test results on time.
Figures for 2017/18 show that six out of 10 women in some parts of England waited longer than three weeks for results after undergoing a smear test. This is despite NHS England saying 98% of all patients should receive test results within two weeks.
Six out of 10 women (58.7%) in the East Midlands waited longer than three weeks, as did 43.5% in the East of England. Across England, almost one in four women (23%) waited longer than three weeks for cervical test results, with a further 18.4% of women waiting between two and three weeks.
Overall, just 58.6% received results within the recommended two weeks.
MPs said in their report that “women attending cervical screening appointments are being continually failed by screening providers” and targets are not being met. “This delay is unacceptable and the impact of the undue stress and worry for women must be recognised,” the study said. “Our inquiry has exposed a health service that is losing its grip on health screening programmes.
The Department of Health said the 14-day target was “a customer service ambition and not actually based on any essential clinical need” – but MPs said women had not been told this.
They added: “NHS England told us that some local providers currently have staff shortages, but as this target has not been met since November 2015, it is clear to us that NHS England is not managing local providers effectively.”
As part of their report, MPs reviewed bowel, breast and cervical screening and screening for a condition called abdominal aortic aneurism. Tests for this are offered to men as they turn 65. The report found that not one single cancer programme met its targets on how many people should be screened in the year 2017/18.
MPs said national health bodies still do not know which specific barriers prevent certain groups from attending screening, meaning they cannot effectively target these groups to encourage them to attend.
The MPs’ report comes after serious incidents were reported last year in which thousands of women were not sent invitations for breast or cervical screening.
MPs also said they were worried about regional issues with screening coverage, saying: “We are extremely concerned about the massive disparity around the country with some areas in the North East consistently reaching more of their eligible populations than areas of London.”
The report reiterated that screening programmes rely on a single IT system, known as NHAIS, to identify the eligible population for screening. “The IT used to identify the eligible population for screening has been unfit for purpose for screening programmes since 2011, but still has not been replaced.”
MPs said NHS England has now committed to replacing NHAIS during 2020, three years later than planned, with the “delay costing the taxpayer £14m”.