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Behind the headlines: Cervical screening incident in Scotland and what it means

Posted on: Wednesday, 15th September 2021 by Samantha Dixon, Chief Executive

This blog has been updated from June 2021.

It was announced in June that an error in Scotland led to some women being wrongly removed from the Cervical Screening Programme. The Scottish Government have given a further update on this today. If you have been affected by the incident, we know this might be an incredibly difficult time. Please do know that Jo’s are here for you.

If you’ve seen it in the news you might be feeling worried or confused, so we want to take you behind the headlines to find out what has really happened and what you can do if you have further questions.

What has happened?

A routine audit of cervical cancer data earlier this year carried out by the NHS in Scotland found a small number (fewer than five) of cases where individuals with cervical cancer had been wrongly excluded from the cervical screening programme. A wider review identified errors which meant some women who have had a sub-total (or partial) hysterectomy had been wrongly excluded, in other cases, it was unclear whether they were rightly excluded. 

What does this mean?

Around 600 letters were sent to those who have had hysterectomies providing more information and asking them to book an appointment for cervical screening or at gynaecology depending on their circumstance. A number of these needed to be referred for further investigations but no cases of cervical cancer have been detected. Those found to have cell changes have been treated. 

If you have received one of these letters and you have been asked to contact a healthcare professional, it is important to do so. We are here for you if you have been affected by this and want to talk to somebody. 

Today, a further investigation has been announced. In this additional review, 200,000 women who were excluded from the Cervical Screeing Programme for a wider range of reasons will be audited to ensure that they were correctly excluded. The review will take around a year's time.

It may help to remember that the risk of developing cervical cancer remains low and the overwhelming majority of these exclusions will be correct. However if you have been affected by the incident or are worried about your own health, this news might be upsetting or leave you with questions. We are here to support you – find out how below. The second part, announced today, is likely to take around a year to complete.

What is a sub-total or partial hysterectomy?

In most hysterectomies, often called total or radical hysterectomies, the cervix is removed. This means individuals no longer need routine cervical screening and are removed from the Cervical Screening Programme. 

In a sub-total hysterectomy the cervix is not removed, which means cervical screening invitations should continue. 

What about the rest of the UK?

This incident has taken place in Scotland. England, Wales and Northern Ireland are aware of the issue and doing their own reviews to see if any action needs to be taken and any issues are identified at the earliest possible stage. We understand this news may make you have questions about your own health. If you have any worries it is important to contact your GP.

What has been done to resolve the issue?

The NHS is working quickly to contact all affected individuals and provide the information and support they need to understand what this means. 

The Cervical Screening Programme are putting stronger safety checks in place and changes to the way records are processed. 

At Jo’s, we are asking for assurances that action has been taken to reduce the risk of this happening again, so that no woman will slip through the net during these investigations.

Is cervical screening safe?

This incident was caused by incorrect information being passed to the Cervical Screening Programme or being entered into it. 

Cervical screening (a smear test) remains a really important test and research has shown it is the best protection against cervical cancer. If you have an invitation and have questions about the test or your results then we have lots of information which might help.

Further support

We know that this situation may bring up a lot of emotions and questions for you. We are working with NHS Scotland to provide support to anyone with concerns – nothing is too big or too small. You can call our free Helpline on 0808 802 8000 or email [email protected], where our trained staff and volunteers will listen, signpost you to the right people, and offer the emotional support you may need.

Please be aware we do not have access to your NHS records, so will not be able to provide clinical information about your cervical screening history or hysterectomy. 

If you have questions specifically about your medical history – for example, a hysterectomy – it is best to contact your local health board in Scotland, and GP surgery or hospital team in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

Here is how to contact our Helpline >