Patients should be given much greater choice over when and where they are screened to fit in with increasingly busy lives. A move that could save thousands more lives each year, a new report states.

Leading expert Professor Sir Mike Richards was commissioned to make recommendations on overhauling national screening programmes, as part of a new NHS drive for earlier diagnosis and improved cancer survival. In his report, he called for extra evening and weekend appointments for breast, cervical and other cancer checks.

He also said that women should be able to choose appointments at doctors’ surgeries, health centres or locations close to their work during lunchtime or other breaks rather than having to attend their own GP practice.

The plan for more convenient checks comes as NHS England is gearing up to roll out lung health checks using scanners on trucks in supermarket carparks and other public spaces.

Role of social media in health screening

Sir Mike’s report also called for more to be done to drive uptake through social media campaigns and text reminders. And it called for local initiatives that have successfully boosted uptake to be rolled out nationwide.

In South West London where GP practices have been following up with people who did not attend bowel screening phone calls and reminder letters have led to a 12% increase in attendance. Posting in Facebook community groups has led to a 13% increase in first time attendances for breast screening in Stoke-on-Trent over the past four years.

Sir Mike also recommended a major overhaul to the design of screening programmes. He wants future screening to become more personalised, where appropriate using genetics and other factors to determine the risk people face of developing cancer or other diseases and testing them appropriately.

His report also calls for:

  • Across all screening programmes, patients should receive results within a standard timetable
  • Establishing a single advisory body, bringing together the current functions of the UK National Screening Committee on population screening and NICE on screening for people at elevated risk of serious conditions
  • NHS England to become the single body responsible for commissioning and delivery of screening services, ending any existing confusion on who does what
  • Breast screening providers should aim to invite people at 34-month intervals after their previous appointment so that all participants can be screened within 36 months

Professor Sir Mike Richards said: “Screening programmes are a vital way for the NHS to save more lives through prevention and earlier diagnosis and currently they save around 10,000 lives every year – that is something to be immensely proud of.

“Yet we know that they are far from realising their full potential – people live increasingly busy lives and we need to make it as easy and convenient as possible for people to attend these important appointments.

“The recommendations in this report are intended to help deliver the commitments set out in the NHS Long Term Plan and will hopefully save even more lives.”

For further reading on this topic, you may also be interested in the GM article: Women's screening programmes and Covid-19.