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Less than a third of ethnic minority women attend cervical screenings

Research shows minority groups in the UK are less likely to take vital cancer and sexual health tests.

By Sarah Dawood

Women from ethnic minorities are far less likely to get check-ups for cervical cancer, breast cancer and sexual health, research has found.

While 86 per cent of women in total said they were likely to take up a health screening or vaccination invite, less than a third of ethnic minority women (31 per cent) reported doing so for cervical cancer screenings, compared with nearly two thirds (65 per cent) of white women. The survey of 10,650 women in the UK was conducted in October and November 2022 by the market research company OnePoll, commissioned by the health tech company Hologic, and it covered both routine checks at the invitation of a GP or NHS trust and participants going for checks of their own accord.

Only 11 per cent of ethnic minority women attended breast cancer screenings, compared with 25 per cent of white women, and 17 per cent attended sexual health screenings, compared with 26 per cent of white women. A breakdown within ethnic groups found that those who identified as Arab were least likely to attend cervical cancer tests, at 11 per cent. Those who identified as Arab, Asian or Asian British were least likely to attend breast cancer tests, at 11 per cent, while those who identified as Asian or Asian British were least likely to attend sexual health tests, at 12 per cent.

The research also showed disparities in knowledge and understanding around cancer and personal risk: 90 per cent of white women reported an understanding of their personal risk of developing cancer compared to 84 per cent of women from ethnic minority backgrounds.

This study was informed by the Hologic Global Women’s Health Index, an annual report for which 127,000 people worldwide were surveyed in 2021. The index ranks 122 countries and territories on women’s health. The UK has dropped three points compared with 2020, now scoring 60 out of 100, below Germany, Switzerland and Norway. The average global score was 53, with Taiwan having the highest score (70) and Afghanistan the lowest (22).

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Dr Nighat Arif, a GP specialising in women’s health, said that there was “more work to be done” to ensure all women in the UK can access life-saving preventative care: “As the data shows, there are still stark health disparities across the UK, particularly impacting women from ethnic minorities. This is sadly something I see daily through my work, hearing from women who do not feel represented or listened to. To tackle this, health information must be made more accessible and there needs to be more done to communicate with women in these communities.”

Racial inequalities in healthcare persist beyond preventative screenings. Maternity care, mental health and dermatology have been highlighted as areas where people from minority ethnic backgrounds are disproportionately impacted. Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act.

Covid-19 deaths were also higher among ethnic minority groups. During the first wave of the pandemic (24 January 2020 to 11 September 2020), the highest rate of death was for the Black African ethnic group; it was 3.7 times higher in men and 2.6 times higher in women than their white counterparts. This was followed by the Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean and Pakistani ethnic groups.

In January the Department of Health and Social Care confirmed that it was scrapping the Health Disparities white paper – a policy document announced last year on how to tackle health inequalities and improve healthy life expectancy across the UK. Martin McKee, president of the British Medical Association, said in a statement: “It is appalling that during a cost-of-living crisis threatening the long-term health of many in our poorest communities, and after a decade in which cuts to welfare and public health measures have made our country relentlessly sicker, the government could simply abandon its promised strategy to address health inequalities.”

The white paper will be replaced with a Major Conditions Strategy, which will look to tackle health conditions that contribute the most to morbidity and mortality across England, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory diseases, dementia, mental ill health and musculoskeletal conditions. Neil O’Brien, the minister for primary care and public health, has said it will also take a “geographical lens” to address “regional disparities” in health outcomes and life expectancy.

McKee welcomed the strategy on the basis that it would lead to better treatment for people with health conditions, but added that “we also desperately need a plan to stop people getting ill in the first place”.

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