press release
Published: 16 July 2021

More than one in five people are less likely to attend cancer screening post-pandemic

More than one in five people have said they are less likely to attend cancer screening now than before the pandemic, according to the initial findings of a UK-wide survey led by Cardiff University and the University of Surrey.

Despite the majority of respondents eligible for cervical and/or bowel screening saying they would “definitely” participate in their next screening, a substantial minority said they would be “less likely” to attend screening now.

The researchers said national campaigns with clear messaging were needed to encourage people to take part in cancer screening.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread disruption to cancer screening services, with the UK’s national cancer screening programmes effectively paused from late March to around June last year. Routine invitations are now being sent out – but there is a significant backlog of people waiting for invitations.

As part of the COVID Health and Help-Seeking Behaviour Study, research was carried out by Cardiff University and Cancer Research UK, along with King’s College London, the University of Surrey and Public Health Wales. The UK-wide study seeks to assess attitudes towards screening during the pandemic.

A policy briefing on the findings released today reveals:

  • 74 per cent of respondents eligible for cervical screening said they would attend their next cervical appointment, while 84 per cent of eligible respondents said they would participate in bowel screening;
  • A substantial minority (30 per cent of those eligible for cervical screening and 19 per cent of those eligible for bowel screening) said they are less likely to take part in cancer screening now than before lockdown;
  • Three-quarters (75 per cent) said they were worried about delays caused by COVID-19 to cancer tests, investigations and screening.

As part of the study, a small number of respondents were interviewed; they highlighted barriers such as fear of COVID-19 infection and uncertainty about social distancing procedures.

The researchers said the government and health services need to “carefully consider” how best to return screening participation to pre-pandemic levels as “quickly as possible”. Future analysis will look at respondents’ engagement with screening when they are invited.

Katriina Whitaker, Lead for Cancer Care in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Surrey, said: “We need to address the public’s concerns about delays in cancer screening and ensure people are aware that these services are up and running. It’s important to encourage them to take part. Screening can save lives by finding cancers at an early stage.”

These results are part of an online UK-wide survey of 7,543 adults that was carried out in August and September 2020. This analysis included 2,319 respondents eligible for cervical screening and 2,502 eligible for bowel screening, of whom 1,003 were eligible for both.

These findings have been published as a pre-print, with the research team aiming to publish in a peer-reviewed journal this year.

 A link to the policy report can be found here.

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