Cervical smears can be humiliating and stressful, says new study from University of Leicester

November 17, 2011

Women's personal testimonies of cervical smear testing in the UK show that their experiences are often far from positive, says a new study from the University of Leicester published today in the international journal Family Practice.

The study reveals the stress, anxieties, as well as pain that women can suffer when they undergo the test, which involves taking cells from the cervix using special instruments. Women say that they are not always treated with the kindness and sensitivity that they would like. Complaining that healthcare professionals can appear detached and distanced, women say they would prefer a much more personal approach.

Researchers from the Department of Health Sciences at the University of Leicester wrote the paper in collaboration with colleagues at Glasgow Caledonian University, interviewing 34 women about their experience of undergoing cervical smear tests. The research was funded by an MRC Health Services Research Studentship

Dr Natalie Armstrong, Lecturer in Social Science Applied to Health at the University of Leicester, said: "Attitudes towards cervical smears remain something of a paradox. On one hand, screening appears to command impressive levels of public support - as demonstrated by campaigns to widen the eligibility criteria - but on the other hand there is considerable evidence suggesting that individual women find the experience of the screening test problematic."

Commenting that women in her interviews emphasised the highly intimate and personal nature of the test, she explains that many women report unsatisfactory experiences. "Women can feel passive, helpless and vulnerable in the face of a situation where they risk pain and discomfort, shame and humiliation, and violation and invasion of privacy," said Dr Armstrong. One interview stated "It's just so cold. You go in, you take your clothes off, she does that and I mean it's just so, it's just so degrading and embarrassing. It's just horrible."

Women often report feeling disappointed with the way the procedure is conducted, especially if healthcare professionals act as though the smear test is a routine procedure.

"Ignoring women's fears, anxieties and concerns can appear to deny the reality, or at least the validity, of women's emotional responses. There is unlikely to be a 'one size fits all' solution in terms of what specifically health professionals need to do to better support women, but explicitly asking women about their expectations of the screening encounter and whether they have any worries or concerns may help to surface issues that the health professional and woman involved can then seek to tackle together", said Dr Armstrong.
-end-
Co-authors of the paper are Professor Veronica James (Glasgow Caledonian University) and Professor Mary Dixon-Woods (University of Leicester)

NOTE TO NEWSDESK:

Reference for paper is: Armstrong N, James V, Dixon-Woods M. (in press) The role of primary care professionals in women's experiences of cervical cancer screening: a qualitative study. Family Practice DOI: 10.1093/fampra/CMR105

For interviews contact

Dr Natalie Armstrong,
Lecturer in Social Science Applied to Health,
University of Leicester,
Tel: 0116 229 7253,
Email: na144@le.ac.uk

About the Medical Research Council

For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including the first antibiotic penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century. www.mrc.ac.uk

University of Leicester

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