The National Audit Office (NAO) has today revealed that the three major cancer screening programmes in England failed to hit their targets last year. The NAO has found that the overall performance of screening tests is “below expected levels.”

The report, which only accounts for screening services in England, comes after two recent incidents with breast and cervical screening that have raised concerns about oversight of screening programmes in general.

Four key areas were investigated by the NAO overall evaluation of screening tests:

  1. Delivery of health screening programmes
  2. Performance of health screening programmes
  3. Oversight of health screening programmes
  4. Progress in implementing change in screening programmes

A backlog of nearly 100,000 cervical screening samples has been reported, meaning that over half of women who were tested faced delays in receiving their screening results. Under targets set by NHS England, woman should receive cervical screening results within 14 days of their screening appointment – the report has revealed that this target has not been met since November 2015 and in March 2018, only 33 per cent of women received their results on time.

The results from breast cancer testing also failed to hit the mark. Woman who are tested for breast cancer should receive an additional appointment within 36 months of their initial test, the ‘standard’ threshold has never been met.  This means that almost 10 per cent of women did not receive their second test within 36 months.

The best performing test was for bowel cancer, which nearly achieved the target with coverage of 59.6 per cent against a standard target of 60 per cent of those tested.

The report has also revealed an alarming disparity of screening coverage in different parts of the country. For example, in 2017-18, of those eligible for bowel screening, 60 per cent were screened nationally, but eight Clinical Commissioning Group screening providers screened 30 – 44 per cent of eligible people. The NAO’s analysis shows that levels of coverage across the four screening programmes are inconsistent, with much of the lowest performance in London.

There are currently 11 national screening programmes in operation in England. The NAO investigated the four health screening programmes that offer screening based on a person’s age rather than because they have a particular condition or are pregnant: abdominal aortic aneurysm screening (AAA screening), bowel cancer screening, breast cancer screening, and cervical screening.

A link to the full report can be found here