Thousands of breast, cervical screenings overdue post-pandemic

Source: 1News

Eight months after the Ministry of Health revealed the backlog for regular breast screening had risen to 50,000, services are still struggling to catch up as the number of overdue cervical smears rises by 15,000 this year.

By Kate Nicol-Williams and James Baker

Community service providers say it’s never been harder getting women in for their regular breast screenings and cervical smears.

During Covid-19 alert level four the services were stopped, and although both programmes resumed nine months ago, Well Women and Family Trust General Manager Jane Piper says the message of “stay home and stay safe” still lingers for many.

“Then the women that would normally come along, I think they're also not coming so I think that's what the impact is.”

Both Piper and Mana Wahine general manager Tira Albert said the growing cost of living has also created a new financial barrier for some.

“There are a lot of wahine that are putting their family first and so we're trying to reach out to them and say do not delay, make contact with us,” Albert said.

From December 31, 2021, to March 31, 2022, the difference in cervical screens from pre-pandemic grew by 15,000 to a total of 49,000.

And while there are challenges getting patients in the door, Ministry of Health (MoH), National Screening Unit clinical director, Dr Jane O'Hallahan, says due to Covid-19 and influenza the health system is also under strain.

“The great majority of cervical screening is done in general practice and I think as we all know there have been issues around workforce and other priorities for general practice.”

And as of October 2021, the backlog for regular breast cancer screening had rose to 50,000 women, compared to before the pandemic, according to the Ministry of Health.

The Breast Cancer Foundation previously calculated this left 133 Kiwi women unaware they have the disease.

O’Hallahan said Pacific women have been the most affected by the pandemic’s impact on screening.

“We’re seeing the impact particularly in Counties (Manukau) for Pacific women who are not returning to screening.

“We understand there are a lot of calls on these women supporting their families but they need to also prioritise their own health.”

There’s a little progress since then.

Between the end of 2021, and the end of March this year, the number of mammograms needed to return to the target rate of 70% for women aged between 45 and 69 was down by 2,087.

And O'Hallahan said New Zealand is recovering at a better pace than other countries.

“I think we're making good progress, the providers are doing everything they can.”

But while the average wait for a mammogram is one and a half months, it can be several months in Auckland region.

Breast Cancer Foundation chief executive Ah-Leen Rayner said the charity believes wait times vary significantly between regions.

“We’ve been working with the Government to ascertain the true extent of the problem so that women can get timely access to their mammograms, and at this time we’re still awaiting information,” she said in a statement.

New Zealand Chair of The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists Dr Gabriel Lau says this is partly due to a lack of specialist staff required to carry out mammograms, and radiologists who can identify cancer.

“The shortage of radiologists pre-pandemic and then the build-up of waitlists, there is a concern that we can't manage.”

O’Hallahan said the MoH is committed to getting breast and cervical screening back on track and is in talks with the Government to fund free smears for more Pasifika and Māori wahine, who are twice as likely to die from cervical cancer.

The ministry said in a statement it is measuring overdue breast screens based on the 70% coverage target rather than by pre-pandemic levels.

For cervical screening, the agency said it is measuring the participation difference from pre-pandemic levels.

Women aged between 45 and 69 are eligible for a free mammogram every two years, and women aged between 25 and 69, who have ever been sexually active, are advised to have a smear test every three years.

Women concerned they’ve faced significant delays are asked to contact Breast Screen Aotearoa on 0800 270 200.