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Changes to smear tests in Wales explained

By Kate Easy, a medical negligence lawyer at Irwin Mitchell 

This is a really helpful BBC article on the recent changes to smear tests in Wales. 

After first hearing that smear tests were not going to be carried out as frequently, I understood why many people were concerned. However, having read this article, it seems that this change is a positive one and the key point is to keep educated about smear tests and to make sure you attend when called for one.

Tests are now 'more effective'

The key reassuring message in the article is that the interval between screening in Wales is increasing from three years to five years because the tests are now “more effective”. 

To give a little more detail, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust – the UK’s leading cervical cancer charity – explains that cervical screening across most of the UK, including Wales, has changed over the past few years and HPV primary screening is now used as the testing method on samples collected at cervical screening because it is more accurate than the previous method (cytology) which means it is better at detecting cell changes overall and earlier. 

This means that changes are picked up earlier and evidence shows it is safe for those who test negative for high risk HPV to be screened less often. This is partly because any infection is picked up earlier. It also means that when you are invited is now more closely linked to your individual risk of developing cervical cancer, as if you test positive for high-risk HPV you will be monitored more often

This screening interval brings Wales into line with Scotland but, as the article states, England and Northern Ireland remain at three years.

The need for clear communication

It is clear that this change has caused huge anxiety and concern in Wales because the reason for the change wasn’t properly explained: the article cites a UK-wide petition organised by Rachel Paul which gained 1.2 million signatures to reverse the decision. 

Jo’s Trust have emphasised the importance of clear communication about changes to cervical screening so that the benefits, and what changes mean, are understood. The BBC article does note that Wales’s public health body did publicly apologise for causing concern and admitted health chiefs hadn’t done enough to explain the changes. Hopefully, if further changes are made to the screening programme, these will be better explained.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting women and their families affected by cervical cancer at our dedicated cancer claims section.

Changes in cervical cancer screenings will help save lives, not put them at risk, according to a top gynaecologist.

Prof Alison Fiander said people should not be worried screenings have dropped from every three to every five years in Wales as tests are "more effective".”