NHS announces major overhaul of cancer screening programs amid recent issues

NHS England has announced plans to do a major overall of its national cancer screening programs as part of the NHS Long Term Plan, an initiative aimed to improve patient care and outcomes, according to an NHS press release published Nov. 15.  

Sir Mike Richards, NHS’ first cancer director and the former chief inspector of hospitals for England’s Care Quality Commission (CQC), will lead the effort in assessing current cervical, breast and bowel screening programs; whether the programs are making sufficient use of technology and suggest how they should be improved, according to the release.  

The announcement came shortly after it was revealed, Wednesday, Nov. 14 that NHS England's chosen outsourcing company, Capita failed to deliver cervical cancer screening invitations and test results to 40,000 women in England.

Months earlier, it was also revealed that 174,000 women in the country had not been invited for breast cancer screenings due consistently unaddressed issues by the NHS. 

“There is no doubt that the screening programs in England save thousands of lives every year, however, as part of implementing NHS’s Long-Term Plan, we want to make certain they are as effective as possible,” Richards said in a prepared statement. 

The review, expected to be published by summer 2019, will also look at how the latest technological innovations in cancer screening can be best utilized, the potential use of artificial intelligence (AI), integration of research to improve screening and encouraging more eligible patients to be screened.  

Specifically, Richards and his team will review the following:  

  • How screening policy should be modified in the future, including horizon scanning, reviews of effectiveness and advice from clinical experts. 
  • How best to integrate screening programs with other initiatives the NHS cancer program is leading to promote early diagnosis of cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. And place it as part of a wider approach to prevention and early intervention. 
  • Introducing new screening technologies and update IT. 
  • How screening programs should be commissioned, delivered and quality assured in the future. 
  • How to ensure the necessary workforce is trained to deliver the programs. 
  • How best to ensure ongoing research and evaluation can be integrated into the screening program. 

Additionally, the review will advise NHS England and Public Health England on the best operational delivery model for current screening programs, including possible changes to currently outsourced provision, according to the release.  

“Screening is a vital and effective tool in our fight against cancer. However, recent issues with breast and cervical cancer screening have shown that we need to look closely at these existing programs,” said Steve Power, NHS England’s national medical director.  

The Royal College of Radiologists expressed their support of the overhaul in a recent statement, highlighting their excitement for review of NHS breast screening staff, the application of AI in tumor detection and the opportunity for new breast imaging technologies to enable personalized screening and categorization for at-risk women.  

“This year marks the 30th anniversary of [the] breast screening program, however, breast services are under-staffed and under strain,” said Caroline Rubin, MD, RCR vice president for clinical radiology. “It is absolutely right that the program should be reviewed in order to ensure it modernizes and continues to save lives for decades to come.”