Labour has hit back at the government’s announced extension of GP surgery opening hours, claiming that changes are too little too late, citing the spiralling number of overdue smear tests among working age women as a case in point.
New analysis shows that some 360,000 more women are overdue cervical cancer screening compared to three years ago, as women struggle to book check-ups at their local GP surgery at convenient times.
Despite cervical screening saving around 5,000 lives every year in the UK, around 3.7 million women are currently overdue for a smear test – a marked increase of 11 per cent on 2009-10 figures.
“Smear tests save thousands of lives every year, so this recent drop in uptake is extremely worrying,” said Labour’s shadow minister for care and older people Liz Kendall MP.
“It’s vital to increase public awareness and make it easier for women to book their tests, including outside normal working hours, because it can be tough getting to your local surgery if you’re working, commuting or have to pick your children up after school.”
Figures suggest the biggest increase in overdue smear tests is amongst working age women, with more than a million in their thirties now overdue their tests, representing an 11 per cent increase on 2009-10.
While those in their 40s and 50s were less likely to forgo their test, their numbers have risen dramatically by 15 and 16 per cent respectively on 2009-10 figures.
Surveys suggest a major cause of delayed or missed tests is the difficulty many women face in making a convenient appointment with their local GP, where nine out of ten tests are carried out.
As a result, there have been growing calls for local surgeries to open in the evenings and on weekends to fit around working and family life, with 18 per cent of patients in the latest national GP patient survey saying opening hours are inconvenient – representing almost 8 million patients across England.
A YouGov survey carried out for Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found 35 per cent agreed they would have been encouraged or ensured they had attended their appointments had opening times been more flexible.
“The government should listen to what patients want so that women don’t have to choose between work and taking care of their health,” said Kendall.
“David Cameron promised easier access to GP surgeries, but hundreds of them have shut their doors earlier.”
Indeed, while the prime minister cheers the progress of his £50m GP Access Fund announced last October, his measures only apply to 1,147, or an eighth, of practices.
The month after taking power, his government scrapped Labour’s targets for patients to see a GP within 48 hours and to book appointments more than two days ahead.
Ministers also removed incentives in the GP Quality and Outcomes Framework on patient access, and ended the extended opening hours scheme.
The cervical screening programme states that women aged 25-49 should be screened every three years while women aged 50-64 should be screened every five years.
With a woman diagnosed with cervical cancer every three hours in the UK, and three dying from the condition daily, improving access to local GP services outside regular working hours and investment in educational resources is a matter of extreme urgency.