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Health screening is an important part of our NHS care when at certain times in our lives for certain conditions, early detection of a health problem enables monitoring or treatment that ultimately improves outcomes.
At birth, all newborns are screened physically and for hearing and a small blood test which checks for some rare conditions. In pregnancy women are offered tests to exclude certain infections and to check for potential anomalies in their baby.
NHS health checks are available and screening to detect certain cancers. Fifty years ago principles known as Wilson’s screening criteria were devised and remain today. They include that the health problem should be an important one that we understand; the test should be acceptable, reliable and straightforward; treatment should be available and the benefits of early detection and treatment provide better outcomes than if detected later; there should be a continuous process to find cases; the benefits of detection and treatment should outweigh any physical or psychological risks associated with the process.
Screening is available for three cancers, breast, cervical and bowel. Uptake of screening is variable. Data shows that breast cancer screening, offered every three years to all women between 50 and 70 is taken up by just over 70%. Of the 1.8 million people screened, 1% are found to have cancer – that’s 18000. Over 7000 of these ladies had cancers too small to be detected by self-examination.
Cervical cancer screening is available for all women from 25 to 64 and the uptake varies across England from 50% in some areas to around 80% in others. Of note, 15% of all cervical cancer diagnoses are in those aged over 65 – the majority of those did not take up screening between the ages of 50 and 64.
Bowel cancer screening has been available since 2006 and the uptake has steadily increased and is currently around 60%. In England screening invitations go out every two years from age 60 to 74.
In addition, men aged 65 are also invited for screening for abdominal aortic aneurysm, AAA, which is an enlarged main blood vessel in the abdomen which can prove life threatening were it to rupture. If the aorta is found to be enlarged then repeat screening would be offered at intervals depending upon its size.
As with anything to do with our health, all decisions on screening are a matter of personal choice. Invitations to screening will always be accompanied by information to help you make an informed decision. If you have any questions then do contact your GP. Finally, please note that due to Covid, invitations to screening may be taking longer than usual.
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