Are women sufficiently well informed to provide valid consent for the cervical smear test?
Three hundred women attending colposcopy for the first time, following an abnormal cervical smear, were invited to fill in a questionnaire. This covered aspects of their understanding of the cervical smear test and the NHS Cervical Screening Programme (NHSCSP). In addition, it covered aspects of consent to the test. The response rate was 83%. Seventy percent thought that the NHSCSP is working well and 72% were aware that probably over 3000 cases of cervical cancer per year are being saved by the NHSCSP. However, 55% did not know that the death rate from cervical cancer is decreasing. 96% were aware that the main reason for a cervical smear is to prevent the development of cervical cancer, by finding early treatable abnormalities. Similarly, 94% were aware that the presence of abnormal cells on a cervical smear indicated a possible but not definitive indication of cervical precancer or cancer. Disappointingly, only 5% had seen the new NHSCSP information poster on the cervical smear test and only 44% had been given written information about the test. Consent for the test in 59% of women had been implied rather than expressed and 30% of women providing expressed consent had signed to that effect. In 42% of women, the smear taker or a doctor had failed to discuss the reason for having a cervical smear and had not explained about its advantages and limitations. In 72%, the smear taker or doctor had not explained that the cervical smear test can never be 100% accurate and that some laboratory errors are unavoidable. It is likely that women attending for colposcopy are a highly motivated cohort in relation to their understanding of the cervical smear test and the NHSCSP. Accordingly, understanding in the more general female population is likely to be considerably less. It would appear that women are often suboptimally informed to provide valid consent for the cervical smear test.