The reason why this website is called Cancer Screening reflects the issue that intrigues me the most in the cervical cancer debate. As I said before, in many countries, including Portugal where I come from, screening for cervical cancer usually starts as early as women become sexually active. In England it doesn’t start until the age of 25.
Different factors should be considered when judging the quality of a screening programme, regardless the type of cancer it applies to. Budget, culture and private health services are just some of them, which partly explains why there isn’t a common cancer screening programme, for example, on a European level.
I spoke to one expert who is particularly concerned about such discrepancies. Dr. Armando Brito de Sá is Professor of General Practice and Family Medicine at the Medical School of Lisbon University.
He agrees with the screening programme adopted by the NHS. Both the age to start screening and the frequency (every three to five years) are recommended for the Portuguese primary care services, following the British model.
Some important bodies, such as the U.S Preventive Studies Task Force (USPSTF), still recommend screening once a woman becomes sexually active. But the Portuguese expert highlights the position taken two years ago by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG):
Screening before age 21 should be avoided because women less than 21 years old are at very low risk of cancer. Screening these women may lead to unnecessary and harmful evaluation and treatment.
According to Dr. Brito de Sá, “this is a surprising statement given that it comes from an organisation of specialists [and not of a wider range of health professionals], which is very good news”. In his opinion, such organisations tend to be more aggressive.
ACOG also states cytology should be made every two years – a frequency that “prevents cervical cancer just as well, has decreased costs, and avoids unnecessary interventions that could be harmful.”
There is no scientific evidence that supports doing a Papanicolaou test every year, the GP adds.
The more medical exams, the healthier: a wrong message
One of my questions was that although the Portuguese health service takes the NHS as an example, both systems can never be totally similar since the private sector plays an important role in the country.
According to Portuguese database Pordata, 1,485 gynaecologists/obstetricians and 5,160 GPs were active in the country in 2009.
Dr. Armando Brito de Sá points out that, although most people are consumers of the national health service (SNS in Portuguese), there is an overuse of medical exams in the private sector – not only in Portugal but worldwide. “This happens because of this general and wrong idea that the more exams we do, the better health we have.”
In line with this, I know many people who ask their private gynaecologist to be screened every year – sometimes even twice a year. So I asked Dr. Brito de Sá whether patients understand that paying for an exam could be more harmful than attending a national programme that recommends less frequent smear tests.
“Patients are not idiots,” he answers. “When you tell them the facts, they understand and are capable of making their own decision”.
Overscreening is a direct breach of “Primum non nocere”, an ethic principle taught in medical schools which means “First, do no harm”
And the facts are clear in his words: “The problem caused by early, frequent screening is not only the very small number of lives it would save but mainly the thousands of young women that are unnecessarily overwhelmed with additional exams whenever they have an abnormal test.”
Making medical students aware of different evidence-based policies
While lecturing the future generation of doctors, one role of Dr. Armando Brito e Sá is to make them understand that governments do not always follow the latest, best scientific advice.
He points out the dangers of overprevention and overmedication – an idea that was highlighted in 2001 when the American Family Physician journal published these Screening Guidelines.
Numerous medical organizations have developed cancer screening guidelines. Faced with the broad, and sometimes conflicting, range of recommendations for cancer screening, family physicians must determine the most reasonable and up-to-date method of screening.
Finally, the Portuguese expert shows conviction in saying that government’s policies are just partly determined by scientific evidence. The implementation of the HPV vaccines in different national programmes was “inevitably political, because of the excessively heavy disease-awareness produced in the media by the vaccine manufacturers.”