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Cancer screening reminder texts work

Women reminded by text 20% more likely to attend

Adrian O'Dowd

Friday, 20 March 2015

Women who were sent a text message to remind them about their breast cancer screening appointment were 20% more likely to attend than those who were not texted, according to a study* published in the British Journal of Cancer.

Researchers, funded by the Imperial College Healthcare Charity, trialled text message reminders for women aged 47-53 years old who were invited for their first appointment for breast cancer screening.

Each year, more than 2 million women have breast cancer screening in the UK as part of the NHS Breast Screening Programme that invites all women aged between 50 and 70 for screening every three years.

There are around 15,500 breast cancers diagnosed through screening in the UK each year and of these, 4,000 will be overdiagnosed – for some women the treatment is unnecessary – and 1,300 lives are saved, which means that for every life saved from breast cancer by screening, around three women are overdiagnosed.

The researchers started their work from the stance that there is a need for interventions to promote uptake of breast screening throughout Europe.

They carried out a randomised controlled trial to test whether text message

reminders were effective and split 2,240 women receiving their first breast screening invitation into two groups, which were sent either a normal invitation only or a normal invitation plus a text-message reminder 48 hours before their appointment.

Of the 1,122 women assigned to the text-message reminder group, only 456 had a mobile number recorded by their GP so the researchers compared around 456 women who were sent a text with 435 women who were not texted.

Their results showed that 72% of women who were sent a text message reminder attended their screening appointment, compared with 60% who were not.

Text message reminders had the biggest impact on women from the most deprived areas who were 28% more likely to attend their first screening appointment if they were sent a text.

In addition, the research found that women were almost three times more likely to cancel their appointment in advance if they were sent a text message reminder.

Lead author, Robert Kerrison, at the Cancer Research UK health behaviour unit at UCL, said: “We all forget things now and then, and doctor’s appointments are no exception – in fact, forgetting is one of the most commonly cited reasons why women miss breast cancer screening appointments.

“Our research found that a cheap, simple text-message-reminder could boost the number of women – especially those from deprived areas – attending screening, or cancelling in advance. More trials are needed to confirm this, but texting could save valuable NHS resources.”

Ian Lush, chief executive of Imperial College Healthcare Charity, said: “The potential positive impact the study could have on the UK population’s health is huge and goes far beyond the borders of London where the text message service was originally trialled.”

Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK's head of health information, said: “Research like this can help tackle practical barriers that sometimes stop women from attending screening appointments.”


* R S Kerrison, et al. Text-message reminders increase uptake of routine breast screening appointments: a randomised controlled trial in a hard-to-reach population. British Journal of Cancer 112, 1005-1010, 17 March 2015. doi:10.1038/bjc.2015.36

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