London – Offering women DIY smear tests significantly boosts the number who undergo cervical cancer screening, a study shows.
Results from a trial of 20 000 women found that more than a quarter of those who usually missed their screening appointments took part when they were sent home-testing kits.
This represented a 50 percent increase in uptake compared with women who were only sent letters reminding them to go to a clinic for cervical screening.
The US trial comes after British scientists this week unveiled an accurate DNA urine test that women could use in their own home to test for the disease. The two announcements put pressure on health authorities in the UK to fast-track the introduction of "self-sample" tests for cervical cancer.
Screening for the disease in Britain has fallen to an all-time low – with nearly five million women currently overdue for testing.
Experts believe offering them the chance to test themselves in the privacy and comfort of their own home would appeal to the many women who are too embarrassed or busy to attend a clinic.
The UK National Screening Committee has for some time been examining the possibility of sending DIY tests through the post to women who do not respond to invitations for the official screening programme. King’s College London and NHS England are carrying out a pilot study of home testing kits.
But progress has been slow and no decision has yet been made by British officials about whether the technology should be introduced.
The new study, by the University of Washington in Seattle and the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, shows that offering home testing to women overdue a smear test significantly boosts uptake.
About 26 percent of those sent kits through the post either completed and returned the tests or turned up for clinic screening.
Of those who were merely sent reminder letters only 17 percent took part in screening.
The academics, whose results are published in the JAMA Network Open medical journal, said this equated to a 50 percent relative increase in uptake. Researcher Diana Buist, of Kaiser Permanente, said: "It really opens up the possibility for home testing to be a widespread option for women."
Traditional smear tests involve a technician taking a small sample of cells from the walls of the cervix to look for abnormalities.
Home testing has been made possible by the creation of a more sensitive cervical test that uses a swab to identify the HPV virus, which is responsible for virtually all cervical cancer cases. The women in the US study were sent HPV testing kits.
A study published earlier this week by Queen Mary University of London also introduced the possibility of a urine test, which would be even less invasive. It works by spotting chemical changes in DNA prompted by the disease.