The vast majority of routine cervical screening is undertaken by practice nurses in GP surgeries.
We are synonymous with the role – and the backbone of the NHS Cervical Screening programme launched in 1988. The public expects a practice nurse to be the person to do the intimate procedure and to be the main source of reassurance and support. Indeed, Public Health England research indicates 87% of women who attended the test were glad they had, with 84% saying they were put at ease by the clinician. We have made the role our own.
Yet around 2,600 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer a year in England and around 690 die – equating to two deaths a day. Estimates indicate that 83% of cases could be prevented if everyone attended their screening regularly. As nurses we may be aware of this – but is the public? It appears screening rates have dropped to a 20-year low, with the lowest uptake in the 25-34 age group.
Public Health England has launched a national ‘Cervical Screening Saves Lives’ campaign to raise awareness that cervical screening can stop cancer before it starts. The campaign’s key message is that women should always attend when invited for screening; this will support our message and our clinical role.
A high-profile campaign inevitably raises concerns: are there enough surgery appointments and have we enough skilled nurses? Appointments allocated at the time they are requested, rather than women being asked to call back, and the use of text/email reminders will help reduce DNAs and barriers to uptake.
But with around 40,000 nurse vacancies, the NHS faces a continuing workforce challenge and primary care is no exception. The campaign offers practice nurse teams the opportunity to look at using their roles, skill mix and training to increase screening uptake. I’m excited that highlighting the role of nurses and raising our profile in the surgery will portray the profession in a positive and attractive light, reflecting its breadth of knowledge, skills and attributes. As role models, might we encourage some to choose it as a career, or tempt others to return to practice?
I predict it will certainly give nurses, and practice nurses in particular, a feelgood factor about our importance in improving public health – and will enhance our reputation in the public’s eye. So bask in it. We deserve it.