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Tips for communicating to patients about cervical screening

Posted on: Tuesday, 13th October 2020 by Adriana MacNaughton, Public Health Coordinator

We know many women and people with a cervix find cervical screening a difficult test, and COVID-19 has made it more challenging for some. We have developed some tips to help you communicate with and support your patients through cervical screening at the moment.

1. Availability of appointments

Do your patients know they can book screening now? We regularly hear from people who are unsure if they can book an appointment at the moment. Communicating this to patients is essential, as is identifying how to get this message across. Text messages, phone calls, notices on websites and working with organisations in the community can be a valuable tool. If your practice is offering limited appointments, ensure patients know their options. You could do this by letting them know when they will be able to book a test, and where they will be able to book one – specific details like these means they may be less likely to give up.

2. Explain what to expect

Explain the measures you’re putting in place to keep them safe during the pandemic. We know patients want details about what to expect, so identify ways to communicate this to ensure patients are prepared and feel safe. For example, staff may be wearing PPE or you might be asking people to wait outside the surgery until their appointment – these are all details that will help your patients feel prepared. Try to explain this when you’re inviting them or put a note about safety measures on the surgery website

3. Patient precautions

Provide information on what they can do to protect themselves, including washing their hands regularly and wearing a face covering. This will give patients an additional level of control.

4. Reassurance about the test

Reassure patients that the test itself is exactly the same, even if the experience at the surgery is different. Coronavirus has changed lots of things. For patients who are feeling anxious about attending screening, knowing that there are no changes to how cervical screening is done can provide a level of reassurance and familiarity. Remind your patients about this when you invite them for cervical screening. 

5. Chaperones and alternatives

For some patients, bringing a chaperone or trusted person with them to cervical screening provides much needed support. COVID-19 means this may not be possible at the moment, so consider alternatives and communicate these to patients. You could suggest they have someone wait at the surgery door or offer a member of staff as a chaperone instead. You might also want to spend time with patients ahead of the test, to find out how the feel about it.

6. The original barriers still exist

While COVID-19 has added additional barriers and fears among patients, our research clearly shows this is simply an additional challenge. Previous challenges to attending screening have not gone – fear about what the test involves, anxiety about results, embarrassment, trauma, pain and more. Many people are living with increased anxiety as a result of the pandemic, so previous concerns are likely to be exacerbated. This includes dealing with results of HPV and cell changes.  Counselling patients through this remain more important than ever, ensuring they have the resources and are aware of sources of support to deal with their feelings and results. 

7. Establishing rapport when wearing PPE

Wearing PPE can affect your ability to communicate with patients, limiting opportunities for visual communication such as smiling and possibly make speech less clear. While this can be extremely difficult to overcome, consider how you might communicate with patients to ensure that wearing protective clothing doesn’t impact the level of care you provide. For example, you could wear a lanyard with a picture of you without PPE on or be vocal to let your patient know that you know it’s a bit different, but you’ll work through it together.

8. Ensure all staff are on board with messaging

While practice nurses provide the majority of screenings, there is a role for all staff at a surgery to support patients through screening. Making sure all staff are aware of the challenges women may face when booking and attending screening can help ensure they get the empathy and support they need. This includes reception staff who are likely to be the first point of contact for women calling about appointments. If your practice has limited appointments at the moment, or if there are alternative venues where women can attend (sexual health or other practices in your area), ensure reception staff are armed with this information.

9. Supporting patients, especially those in higher risk groups

While many surgeries are seeing screening attendance slowly start to pick up or resume, it is important to understand your population and who might not be attending. Our research shows that women from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities feel less safe attending a surgery at the moment, with their higher risk of coronavirus as well as previous barriers leading to them feeling less likely to attend. Those who have been shielding, or living with someone who has been shielding are also likely to be more cautious. Engaging with these women and ensuring they have the support to attend can stop health inequalities increasing. 

10. Information and support for patients

Consider how you will provide information and signpost to sources of support. With many practices not providing printed information or resources, how will you provide your patients with the information they might need before or after an appointment? Are there opportunities to follow up by text or email, and do you have website addresses to hand for them to write down. Here’s one URL to keep close – Our free services and information can provide support for your information about all things cervical.

Looking for more information? Access our research about the impact of COVID-19 on cervical screening >