Budget pre-announcements demonstrate Government’s commitment to women’s health and equity for Māori
Major improvements to the cervical cancer screening programme and BreastScreen Aotearoa were announced by the Government at a pre-Budget event on women’s health today.
“Every year, about 160 women develop cervical cancer and about 50 die from it. This is a tragedy for our wāhine and whānau, as almost all cases are preventable or can be treated if they’re found at an early stage,” Associate Health Minister (Women’s Health) Hon Dr Ayesha Verrall said.
“The new cervical screening test will detect the human papillomavirus (HPV) – the cause of 99% of cervical cancers. It will replace the existing cervical screening procedure for the 1.4 million eligible New Zealand women aged 25-69 years.
“Screening for HPV means any changes that could indicate an increased risk of developing cervical cancer are detected early.”
Dr Verrall says while the current cervical screening programme has been a very effective tool for reducing cervical cancer, only about 61% of eligible wāhine Māori access it because of the acceptability of the smear test, whakamā associated with the current procedure, time and cost.
The new test is a simple and quick swab that women can choose to do themselves in private when they visit their healthcare provider. This will help to reduce the barriers to participation and increase the number of wahine Māori getting screened.
“The persistent inequities around cervical cancer has been one of the long-standing issues in women’s health. I’m pleased that we are now funding HPV testing which has been shown to be even more effective, easier and acceptable for women.”
The new testing method means women who test negative can be confident they are at very low risk of developing abnormal cells that may lead to cervical cancer. This means women will only need to be screened every five years, instead of every three years.
The Government is investing up to $53 million to implement the new screening method, along with a new ICT system which supports the programme change.
The new HPV testing method will be introduced from 2023. This will allow time for consultation on the clinical guidelines and referral pathways, the design and implementation of the new population health-based ICT solution required to safely support the changes to the programme, and education and training for providers.
The Government has also announced that the ICT system supporting the national breast screening programme, BreastScreen Aotearoa (BSA), will be replaced.
“Key components of the system need upgrading which gives us the opportunity to invest in a system that will provide better patient experiences and make screening services more accessible for Māori and Pacific women,” Dr Verrall says.
The system replacement will also allow BSA to use a population register to identify and target wahine Māori and women in other priority groups who may not already be part of the programme, to support the move to an opt-out system, and to send targeted invitation campaigns.
The current system operates as an opt-in model, where women choose to enrol for breast screening via their GP or by calling 0800 270 200. This model relies on women knowing they are eligible for free breast screening and making an appointment themselves. An opt-out model would mean the programme contacts you to offer you an appointment when you are eligible for breast screening. You can choose to participate or ask to opt-out.
The Government is investing up to $55.6 million over four years to replace the system. The upgrade will begin in June 2021 and is expected to finish in 2023/24.
Funding of $10 million has also been provided to catch up on scans missed due to COVID-19 and match population growth.