2 Feb 2023

Mammogram targets missed for third year running

7:09 am on 2 February 2023
Doctor setting a patient in the correct position to get a mammogram. Breast cancer screening.

Te Whatu Ora's national review of the breast screening programme, due in September, has still not been published. Photo: 123RF

Aotearoa's breast screening programme has now missed its mammogram coverage targets for three years running.

National Screening Unit data shows that, as at the end of December, just 65 percent of eligible women were being screened, short of the 70 percent target.

Yet Te Whatu Ora's national review of the breast screening programme, due in September, has still not been published.

The national review was announced last year - in part because the Hutt Valley and Capital and Coast DHBs were reviewing their services after finding some patients may have got sicker because of mammogram delays.

The Breast Cancer Foundation called on Te Whatu Ora to get on with the review.

Its research manager, Adele Gautier, warned women were at risk of dying because of delayed diagnoses.

"For three years now we've had breast screening not happening at the level that it should, for Covid reasons, for resource reasons, for backlog reasons.

"It's too long for women to be having late breast cancer diagnoses and ending up with much worse disease and potentially dying.

"Now's the time to nail this down and fix it once and for all."

Screening delays 'incredibly frustrating'

With a family history of breast cancer, Wellingtonian Jo Badham tried to book a mammogram soon after she turned 45, in January 2020.

She wasn't seen until a year later - but BreastScreen Aotearoa aims for 90 percent of women to get their first mammogram within 60 working days of enrolling.

Badham said she expected a delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the wait was far longer than she anticipated.

"By October, still hadn't received an appointment or heard anything, so I called the breast screening multiple times.

"If I left messages on the phone it wasn't responded to, when I did get through staff couldn't give me any information about when I might be seen, which was incredibly frustrating."

Badham said she only got the appointment because she was persistent and had the flexibility to take someone else's cancelled booking at short notice.

She said it was upsetting to know the disease was in her family, yet have so much trouble getting reassurance from screening.

"My grandmother on my dad's side died of breast cancer in the 1970s, my cousins had double grade three breast cancer, and we've the BRCA gene in the family.

"Although it's bypassed me, so I'm really lucky in that respect, but the screening process is still so important."

The recall date for Badham's next mammogram had just passed - but she had not heard a peep.

Plans to improve screening service due early this year

In a statement, Te Whatu Ora said the findings from both the BreastScreen Aotearoa and BreastScreen Central (Wellington and Hutt) reviews, and the plan to improve the service, would be completed early this year.

It said the group carrying out the national review provided its report in November - but it wanted to consult further with service users and providers.

Early signs are that the wheels are already in motion.

The capital will get a new breast screening clinic in the central city in April.

Te Whatu Ora said it would provide extended and more flexible hours, enabling them to screen more women and improve equity of access.

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