HL Deb 15 February 1995 vol 561 cc695-7

3.6 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consider reducing the interval between mammography tests from three years to two for women between 50 and 65 years old.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the Government are currently funding research into the possible benefits of screening women for breast cancer more frequently than the present interval of three years. The results will be available in 1996.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that encouraging reply. Is it still the case that in this country the incidence of that kind of cancer is very high in comparison with other countries in Europe, particularly for the group of women above the age of 50? Increasing the amount of screening available to that age group will surely increase the detection rate which will help not only in the social benefits which we hope for and expect but also in the economic benefits.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, we are looking at the matter; but the screening programme was set up in the light of the Forrest report, which was well researched, and we implemented the first screening programme in Europe for that cancer. Now we are looking at the views of other bodies which have said that things have changed and they think perhaps it is time we reviewed the Forrest committee's recommendations. However, before we invest in a huge new programme, we wish to be absolutely sure that it has the benefits we seek.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, what value does my noble friend place on screening in terms of reducing mortality rates in breast cancer? Can she say how many mammography facilities are available and operating at present in the UK? I am aware that she has already said that no central records are kept; but surely if we are considering stepping up the screening programme, we should be aware of what the capacity of the system is. Does the Minister agree that the selection should be based far more on the symptomatic way of selecting people rather than by age?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, that would be difficult. At the moment we have a mass screening programme and we know that it is effective in terms of saving lives. So we want to continue with the programme. As to the number of mammography units, I do not have the figure with me this afternoon; but if it is available, I shall give it to my noble friend.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, in view of the increasing incidence of breast cancer diagnosed in women over 65, may I ask whether the Government have any plans to extend the screening programme to women over that age?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, again the programme was established in the light of the Forrest committee's report. But the advisory committee on breast cancer screening is looking again at the age factor. We are also aware of some small pilot schemes being run to test whether women who are offered the opportunity take up the invitation. In the past there was anxiety that women over 64 would not do so. If they seek the screening, then they may have it on request; but that is not a matter of course.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I should like to say how pleased I am that in both the Minister's replies this afternoon she has indicated how much research is going on in the health service. However, it would be nice to think that we can have slightly more precise answers which are not dependent on long-term research into some of the questions. Regarding breast cancer, would it be more helpful in reducing our alarming mortality rate if, instead of extending the amount of screening, people were trained more precisely in diagnosing early breast cancer? Then when patients come forward, their GPs can recognise it at an early stage?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, late last year we launched a new policy for breast cancer and all cancers. Part of that policy was better training for GPs and reorganising the treatment services so that we can consolidate the expertise in the bigger units. We are very conscious that the first suspicions of breast cancer are often discovered by the GP.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, will the Minister confirm, as she did partly a moment ago, that mammography tests are available at any time for those women who have a special anxiety or who are alerted by their GPs to have cause for concern? The Question refers only to routine screening. I should declare that I am chairman of the Royal Free Hospital. Is she aware that at that hospital over 50 per cent. of the appointments made by women to attend the Easy Access Clinic for a mammography test are not kept? Does she not believe that that is a waste of valuable NHS resources?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. The first part of it is completely correct. I have now found the figure. There are 80 screening centres in England and in addition there are mobile units. We are very concerned about the number of patients who not only do not keep those appointments but other appointments in the National Health Service. In January my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health launched a programme called "Help Us to Help You" in order to inform patients how they can help the National Health Service.