Research, conducted by the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI), has found that few people understand that cancer screening programmes are primarily designed to prevent the disease, rather than detecting it.

There are currently three national cancer screening programmes in the UK: breast, bowel and cervical. Bowel Scope and cervical cancer screening tests are aimed at preventing the disease, whereas mammography for breast cancer and the faecal occult blood test for bowel cancer are designed to detect cancer early.

The survey, carried out by researchers based at the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre, asked almost 1,500 adults close to the screening age (50 – 70 years old) whether they thought the aim of screening programmes was the early detection or prevention of cancer.

The results showed that participants were not aware of the differences between the various screening programmes and their primary aims. Less than a fifth of women (19%) knew that cervical cancer screening was designed to prevent the disease, and 70% of men and women incorrectly thought that flexible sigmoidoscopy, a procedure for the purpose of looking inside the bowel, was mainly for early detection rather than prevention.

Michael Burrell, a senior clinical negligence solicitor based in Thompsons Solicitors’ Birmingham office, said: “The survey shows that the public are simply not aware of the aims of cancer screening, and if it is to be effective this needs to be dealt with as a priority.

“Healthcare professionals are already under unprecedented pressures due to limited resources and an ageing population, so the government must make raising awareness of cancer screening programmes and their purpose a priority. High-quality mass screening programmes lead to better prognoses for cancer patients as cancer diagnosed earlier can be treated more effectively, and, apart from the heartache, it also will ultimately save the NHS time and money.”