Friday, January 29, 1999 Published at 15:37 GMT
Clampdown on screening failures
Thirteen health authorities have failed to meet targets
Health secretary Frank Dobson is to get tough with health authorities that have failed to meet government targets for cervical smear screening.
Mr Dobson has called a meeting with the chairmen of 13 health authorities who have missed the targets to demand face to face improvements in their screening services.
He is keen that the government is seen to be taking action to improve services in the wake of several high profile smear test blunders, most notably at the Kent and Canterbury Hospital.
The authorities have been given a month to prepare action plans detailing how they will come up to scratch.
Of the 100 health authorities in England, 13 failed to meet the Government target of screening 80% of women aged 25-64 at least once in the last five years.
The Government is demanding that all authorities meet the 80% by March 2002.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "The 13 health authorities not currently meeting the target are being asked to prepare action plans within the next month setting out how they will achieve this.
"Mr Dobson is to meet personally the chairs of these authorities to emphasise the priority they must give to running a fully effective screening service."
All but one of the failing authorities achieved more than 70% coverage.
Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster HA dipped to to 69.3%.
The figures were a slight improvement on 1996, with 3.9 million women being screened.
Programme is a success
"It prevents cancer and saves lives. But women need to feel confident in the service, wherever in the country they live, and that is why we have taken action to strengthen the programme and to improve screening quality."
Mr Dobson introduced the targets and ordered a review of the screening programme in 1997 after a series of smear test scandals.
Three women who were victims of the country's biggest screening scandal at the Kent and Canterbury Hospital attended the last day of their High Court battle for compensation on Friday.
New training initiatives and independent assessment of smear results have been introduced in the wake of the highly critical independent report into the Kent and Canterbury scandal.
Ineffective screening led to the deaths of eight women and meant hundreds more had to have emergency treatment.
National coordinator of the NHS Cervical Screening Programme Julietta Patnick said: "The programme aims to reduce incidence and deaths from cervical cancer - it is doing just that.
"It prevents up to 3,900 cases each year and deaths from the disease are falling steadily."
The figures released today show wide regional variations in the success local authorities are having in meeting the targets.
Eleven of the 13 authorities failing to meet the targets are in London areas and the other two are Manchester and Liverpool.
A spokeswoman for the screening programme said: "The problem is that often areas like Kensington and Chelsea have a very mobile population which means fewer women are likely to respond to letters inviting them to a smear.
"The other problem is that women in deprived areas and ethnic minorities are less likely to respond."
The inner city health authorities have formed an Inner Cities Action Group aimed at increasing screening coverage and GPs are being urged to promote health awareness among ethnic minorities.