More convenient cancer screening services must be rolled out to boost uptake, says Professor Sir Mike Richards

The NHS should roll out online booking, out of hours appointments and text reminders to boost the uptake of breast, cervical and other screening services, leading expert Professor Sir Mike Richards said today.

Sir Mike, who was the first NHS cancer director and is a former CQC chief inspector of hospitals, is leading a major overhaul of national cancer screening programmes as part of a renewed drive to improve care and save lives.

Increasing early detection of cancers when they are easier to treat is at the heart of the NHS’s Long Term Plan to upgrade services and make sure patients benefit from new technologies and treatments.

Sir Mike’s interim report, published today, calls for practical measures to be used across the NHS to make screening more convenient and reverse the long-standing decline in the proportion of people being tested.

Professor Sir Mike Richards said: “Our screening programmes have led the world and save around 9,000 lives every year.

“However, people live increasingly busy lives and we need to make having a screening appointment as simple and convenient as booking a plane ticket online.”

“The technology exists in many other walks of life and by adopting it across the NHS we can help identify even more cancers early when they are easier to treat and save more lives.”

Screening can help spot problems early before a person has any symptoms, when cancer is often easier to treat. In some cases, it can even prevent cancers from developing in the first place, by spotting people at risk.

The NHS sent people over 11 million invitations for screening last year but the proportion of women participating in cervical screening is at the lowest for a decade.

Sir Mike’s interim report states that the decline in the numbers of women taking up breast and cervical screening can be stopped and should be reversed as a priority.

The report says that outdated IT systems lead to problems with monitoring the quality of current screening programmes. IT will need to be radically upgraded across the country while maintaining public trust in how the NHS holds, shares and uses data.

Sir Mike also said that clarity is needed over the governance arrangements because the way responsibilities are divided between the NHS, Public Health England and the Department for Health is confused.

He will deliver his final report later in the summer with further recommendations on:

  • Future management, delivery and oversight of screening programmes.
  • The use of Artificial Intelligence to free up workforce pressure.
  • Increasing uptake of screening and making it more targeted in high risk communities.

Professor Sir Mike Richards added: “The next stage of the review will focus on solutions to make screening services as effective as possible, looking at recent advances in technology, future management of the programmes and innovative approaches to selecting people for screening.”

There are three national cancer screening programmes in England.

  • Cervical screening – offered to women aged 25 to 64, with screening offered every three years for women aged up to 49 and every five years from 50 to 64.
  • Breast screening – offered to women aged 50 to 70, with women over 70 able to self-refer for screening.
  • Bowel screening – offered to men and women aged 60 to 74, and another bowel screening test offered to men and women at the age of 55 in some parts of England.

The work and recommendations of the independent review of cancer screening programmes has wider implications and the remit of the review will be extended to include a focus on other screening programmes and diagnostic capacity for cancer.