For women who miss a breast screening appointment, giving a fixed date and time for a new appointment could improve poor attendance and be a cost-effective way to shift national participation trends, according to an analysis led by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).
In England, participation in breast cancer screening has been falling in the last ten years, getting close to the national minimum standard of 70 per cent, with screening particularly low in areas of socioeconomic deprivation.
The NHS Breast Screening Programme (NHSBSP) invites women aged 50-70 to mammographic screening every three years. The usual practice for those who don't attend their first offered appointment is to issue them with a second invitation letter. Some centres supply 'open' invitations, asking women to telephone to make an appointment, while others send an invitation with a fixed date and time, requiring no effort from the invitee to book an appointment.
To test how effective each approach is, a randomised controlled trial took place in six NHSBSP centres in England, involving 26,000 women who had not attended their last appointment.
The results, published in Lancet Oncology, showed that attendance within 90 days of the first offered appointment was significantly higher for those receiving a timed appointment (22.3 per cent) than those receiving an open invitation (12.3 per cent), and the increase was higher for women with a lower socioeconomic status.
Offering a second timed appointment caused an absolute increase in attendance of 10.4 per cent. The greatest absolute increase in attendance was seen in South East London (13.8 per cent), followed by Sheffield (11.5 per cent), Derby (11 per cent), West London (9.6 per cent), Plymouth (8.2 per cent) and Hull (7.4 per cent).
Lead researcher Professor Stephen Duffy from QMUL said: "We often feel that it is too difficult to change people's behaviour, and we should just let people do what they do. But this study seems to indicate that fairly simple changes do substantially change behaviour, and can increase the rate of participation of screening."
The researchers even found that offering fixed appointments had a substantial benefit with women who hadn't attended a screening appointment in the last six years, and a small benefit with women who hadn't attended for nine years.
Offering timed appointments could also be cost-effective if applied when overbooking appointment slots.
Professor Duffy explained: "Clinics currently overbook appointments to take account of the fact that those invited don't all turn up, but these decisions sometimes have to be made on incomplete information. This study helps estimate how likely it is a previous non-attender would show up to their second timed appointment, and could be used to aid decisions on how much to overbook on those time slots."
The study was funded by the National Health Service Cancer Screening Programmes and Department of Health Policy Research Programme.
Although the six sites were spread across England, a limitation of the study is that they might potentially not be representative of the English population overall.
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Notes to the editor
Research paper: 'The Effect Of Second Timed Appointments For Non-Attenders Of Breast Cancer Screening In England: A Randomised Controlled Trial'. Prue C. Allgood, Roberta Maroni, Sue Hudson, Judith Offman, Anne E. Turnbull, Lesley Peacock, Jim Steel, Geraldine Kirby, Christine E. Ingram, Julie Somers, Clare Fuller, Anthony G. Threlfall, Rhian Gabe, Anthony J. Maxwell, Julietta Patnick, Stephen W. Duffy. Lancet Oncology.
Once the embargo lifts, the paper will be published here: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(17)30340-6/fulltext
About Queen Mary University of London
Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) is one of the UK's leading universities, and one of the largest institutions in the University of London, with 23,120 students from more than 155 countries.
A member of the Russell Group, we work across the humanities and social sciences, medicine and dentistry, and science and engineering, with inspirational teaching directly informed by our research. In the most recent national assessment of the quality of research, we were placed ninth in the UK (REF 2014).
As well as our main site at Mile End - which is home to one of the largest self-contained residential campuses in London - we have campuses at Whitechapel, Charterhouse Square, and West Smithfield dedicated to the study of medicine, and a base for legal studies at Lincoln's Inn Fields.
We have a rich history in London with roots in Europe's first public hospital, St Barts; England's first medical school, The London; one of the first colleges to provide higher education to women, Westfield College; and the Victorian philanthropic project, the People's Palace at Mile End.
Today, as well as retaining these close connections to our local community, we are known for our international collaborations in both teaching and research.
QMUL has an annual turnover of £350m, a research income worth £125m (2014/15), and generates employment and output worth £700m to the UK economy each year.