Clinical update

Cervical cancer and screening: advice for nurses

Updated RCN guidance on cervical cancer covers vaccination recommendations and screening
Molecular model of human papillomavirus

Updated RCN guidance on cervical cancer covers vaccination recommendations and screening

Molecular model of human papillomavirus Picture: iStock

Essential information

Cervical cancer is one of the leading causes of death of women worldwide. In the UK it accounts for 2% of all new cancer cases in women.

Thanks to a combination of cervical screening and the vaccine programme for the human papillomavirus (HPV), it is becoming a generally preventable disease.

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Updated RCN guidance on cervical cancer covers vaccination recommendations and screening

Molecular model of human papillomavirus Picture: iStock

Molecular model of human papillomavirus Picture: iStock

Essential information

Cervical cancer is one of the leading causes of death of women worldwide. In the UK it accounts for 2% of all new cancer cases in women.

Thanks to a combination of cervical screening and the vaccine programme for the human papillomavirus (HPV), it is becoming a generally preventable disease.

In most women and men who become infected with HPV, these infections will resolve spontaneously without treatment.

For a minority of women an infection leads to abnormal changes to the cervix, which if not treated may progress to cancer ten to 20 years later.

The HPV vaccine programme was introduced in September 2008 for girls, and for boys in 2019.

Understanding and identifying HPV are important public health concerns and form part of the UK national screening programme.

What’s new?

The RCN has updated its guidance on HPV, cervical screening and cervical cancer.

The guidance includes information for registered nurses working in healthcare settings, such as women’s health, cervical screening and public health.

It takes account of changes relating to nursing associates, who have been eligible to carry out cervical screening in England since 2019.

The guidance gives an overview of HPV including the current vaccination recommendations, the national cervical screening programme, information about colposcopy and key facts on cervical cancer.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses should be mindful of ongoing updates to local policy and procedures in relation to personal protective equipment, social distancing, safety measures and access to services.

Key points for nurses

  • Increasing awareness among men and women about the risks of HPV, and how regular screening can make a positive difference to health, is an important public health message which should be reinforced at every opportunity.
  • Encourage women eligible for the national screening programme those aged 25-64 to take up cervical screening opportunities.
  • You should only perform cervical screenings if you have completed a recognised training programme. Ask your employer if you need training.
  • During a screening appointment be alert and sensitive to any issues women may wish to discuss and provide up-to-date and evidence-based advice and information.
  • Before a sample is taken, women should be informed of the reason for the procedure and the implications for their future health and well-being.
  • A screening test should be taken in such a way to provide an adequate sample for assessment, with the minimum of distress or discomfort.

Expert comment

RCN professional lead for public health nursing Helen Donovan
Helen Donovan

Helen Donovan, RCN professional lead for public health nursing

‘The importance of action, timely vaccination, regular screening and effective follow-up for treatment cannot be overemphasised – prevention, early diagnosis and treatment saves lives and reduces stress and anxiety for women and their families.

‘Access to services should be local and easily accessible to reduce service barriers that may restrict take-up to the national screening programme.

‘Increasing awareness about the risks of human papillomavirus, and how regular screening can make a positive difference to health, is an important public health message that should be reinforced at every opportunity.

‘This guidance aims to take those involved through the information and resources they need so they can care for their patients as well as advise them and help further prevent cervical cancer.’


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