Missed cervical smear test appointments, misreported results and cervical cancer diagnosis rates have dominated health headlines in recent years. This has resulted in a push to ensure that all women aged 25 to 49 are regularly screened every three years and that they are aware of the symptoms they should be looking out for.
It has recently been reported that the NHS failed to send letters to more than 40,000 women with information regarding the cervical cancer screening programme. As many as 200 of these women had not been given test results which were abnormal.
In 2013 it was found that one NHS trust had misreported nearly 10,000 smear test results. Almost 10% of those women had been given a negative result, but were then recalled nearly a year later and advised that their test was in fact positive. These women then required urgent medical treatment.
The cervical screening process checks for abnormal cells in the cervix. If caught at an early stage, these abnormal cells can be removed before they have a chance to become cancerous. It is not uncommon for a cervical smear test to be positive: NHS statistics show that 1 in 20 women will receive a positive test result at some point in their lives. The vast majority of these women are monitored with six monthly smear tests thereafter, do not require any invasive treatment and will not go on to have another positive test in the future.
Those who do require treatment are invited to attend for a colposcopy, a procedure which looks into the cervix for the abnormal cells. If detected, the cells can be removed by way of a large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ) or cone biopsy. The 2016 national guidelines on colposcopy confirm that 95% of women require only one procedure to remove all abnormal cells.
Emily Reville, an associate in Penningtons Manches’ clinical negligence team who has a special interest in gynaecological injuries, comments: “I regularly represent women who have unfortunately had their cervical smear tests misreported or have not been provided with the correct information on the screening process. The effects can be devastating. I represented one client who underwent five LLETZ procedures, followed by a hysterectomy, rendering her infertile due to an incorrectly reported cervical smear test and a delay of almost a year in providing her with the correct result. This delay allowed the abnormal cells to spread deeper into her cervix, making them more difficult to remove. Another woman, whose cervical smear test was misreported as negative, went on to develop invasive cervical cancer requiring a hysterectomy, chemotherapy and radiology, which in turn caused her severe bladder damage as well as psychological trauma.
“Cervical screening is an incredibly important programme and its significance in the reduction of cervical cancer has been well documented. Current figures show a reduction of 7% per year in women being diagnosed with cervical cancer. However, the errors in reporting results and communicating correct information are still leading to avoidable injuries. Early identification and treatment of abnormal cervical cells are vital to reduce the number of women who are diagnosed each year further.”