Breast and cervical cancer screening

Screening can detect early signs of cancer in people who are not experiencing symptoms. Early detection is important because treatment is more likely to be successful and the chances of survival are much better. In the UK, there are national screening programmes for breast, cervical and bowel cancer. Breast screening is estimated to reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer by 1,300 a year in the UK, while cervical screening is estimated to prevent at least 2,000 cervical cancer deaths each year

How has breast screening coverage in England changed over time?

Women between the ages of 50 and 70 are invited for regular breast screening (every three years) under the NHS Breast Screening Programme. Coverage is the percentage of women in the population who are eligible for screening who have been screened within the last three years. The national minimum standard for coverage is 70%.

Breast screening coverage increased from 68% in 2005 to 77% in 2009, where it remained stable until 2012 when it gradually began to decrease. In 2017, breast screening coverage was 75%. This should be viewed alongside an increase in the number of women invited for a breast screen (aged 50 to 70) from 1.8 million in 2005 to 2.6 million in 2017, and an increase in the number of women screened (aged 50 to 70) from 1.4 million in 2005 to 1.9 million in 2017. Population growth amongst women in the target age range will have affected numbers invited and screened.

The number of cancers detected by the screening programme in women aged 45 and over increased from 11,966 in 2005 to 18,402 in 2017. Over the same time period, the rate of cancers detected per 1,000 women screened increased from 8.1 to 8.4. The number of women with cancer detected can be affected by a number of factors including population growth, while the rate can be affected by other factors such as age distribution, as the incidence of breast cancer increases with age.

Updated July 2018.

How has cervical screening coverage in England changed over time?

Women between the ages of 25 and 64 are invited for regular cervical screening under the NHS Cervical Screening Programme. Coverage is the percentage of women in the population who are eligible for screening who were screened adequately within 3.5 years (for women aged 25-49) and 5.5 years (for women aged 50-64). The national target for cervical screening coverage is 80%.

Overall cervical screening coverage for women aged 25-64 fell from 76% in 2011 to 72% in 2017. Coverage amongst women aged 25 to 49 years (measured at 3.5 years) decreased from 74% in 2011 to 70% in 2017. For women aged 50 to 64 years (measured at 5.5 years), coverage fell from 80% in 2011 to 77% in 2017. In August 2017, Public Health England addressed the decline in attendance for cervical screening and presented recommendations to help increase access to screening and awareness of cervical cancer.

Updated July 2018.

How does the UK's breast cancer screening coverage compare internationally?

The OECD collects international data on breast cancer screening (mammography) for women aged 50-69. Some countries supply survey data (denoted by ^ in the chart) and others supply programme data (denoted by *).

In the UK, breast screening coverage has remained relatively steady over time with an average of 76%. While the UK outperforms many OECD countries including France and Germany, breast screening coverage is higher in the Netherlands and Finland.

Updated July 2018.

How does the UK's cervical cancer screening coverage compare internationally?

The OECD also collects international data on cervical cancer screening for women aged 20-69. Again, some countries supply survey data (denoted by ^ in the chart) and others supply programme data (denoted by *).

Compared to other countries, the UK has one of the highest cervical cancer screening rates. However, there has been a gradual decrease in the proportion of women screened over time from 84% in 2000 to 77% in 2016.

Updated July 2018.

About this data

For the Breast Screening Programme, coverage is defined as the percentage of women in the population who are eligible for screening at a particular point in time, who have had a test with a recorded result within the last three years. For more information, please see NHS Digital's Breast Screening Programme Appendices.

For the Cervical Screening Programme, coverage is defined as the percentage of women in a population eligible for screening at a given point in time who were screened adequately within a specified period. As the frequency with which women are invited for screening is dependent on age, as recommended by the UK National Screening Committee, coverage is calculated differently for different age groups. For those aged 25-49, coverage is calculated as the percentage of women eligible for screening who have had an adequate screening test within the last 3.5 years. For those aged 50-64, coverage is calculated as the percentage of women eligible for screening who have had an adequate screening test within the last 5.5 years. For the total target age group (25 to 64 years), 'age-appropriate coverage' defines coverage as the percentage of women in the population eligible for cervical screening who were screened adequately within the previous 3.5 years or 5.5 years, according to age. Data is not available prior to 2011 due to changes in coverage definition. For further information see NHS Digital's Cervical Screening Programme Report Appendices.

OECD breast cancer screening data: Number of women aged 50-69 who have received a bilateral mammography within the past two years (or according to the specific screening frequency recommended in each country) divided by the number of women aged 50-69 answering survey questions on mammography (for survey-based data) or eligible for an organised screening programme (for programme-based data).

OECD cervical cancer screening data: Number of women aged 20-69 who have been screened for cervical cancer within the past three years (or according to the specific screening frequency recommended in each country) divided by the number of women aged 20-69 answering the survey question (for survey-based data) or eligible for an organised screening programme (for programme-based data).

For further information about limitations in data comparability please see Health at a Glance 2017.

Key:

^ = Survey data
* = Programme data

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