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Published: 30 August 2023

Promoting research and learning in the National Screening Service

By Professor Patricia Fitzpatrick, Consultant Epidemiologist/Director of Evaluation Programme Evaluation Unit for the National Screening Service.

Research in healthcare is important. We need to investigate novel approaches to clinical and management strategies, practices and interventions. This also applies to screening programmes. It keeps us informed of new developments and emerging trends in screening.

Why we do research

We are committed, as part of our 5-year strategy, to be at the forefront of developments in population screening programmes that support the prevention and early recognition of disease. We conduct and commission research, review evidence, and work with policy makers to provide an experienced and expert voice in population screening.

Many of the questions we have around screening decisions, for example ‘what are the best intervals between screening with HPV testing now used for cervical screening?’ or ‘should we use digital mammography?’, have been answered through well conducted research studies.

Our research goals are:

  • to promote the visibility of our four population screening programmes both nationally and internationally
  • to contribute to international screening literature
  • to facilitate the use of anonymised screening data by external partners working with us.

Types of research we do

We conduct distinct types of research. One type is regarding feasibility or acceptability of new screening developments, mindful that all major policy decisions are submitted to and approved by the National Screening Advisory Committee (NSAC). Examples of these include:

  • looking at the effect of sending BowelScreen home testing kits (FIT tests) directly to those taking part rather than people having to sign up to have a kit sent out.
  • piloting a text messaging system to see if it improves attendance at our screening appointments.

Another type of research is publishing evaluations of our screening programmes. We engage with other countries to do comparative studies of outcomes and look at patterns across Europe for example.

Research funding

Research funding includes European funding (Horizon health funding for the microbiome study in BowelScreen), and funding from the Health Research Board (attitudes to cervical screening and HPV testing in older women).

We also commission our own research. We have recently funded the Economic and Social Research Unit and other external companies to undertake research, including a current study on women’s attitudes to self-sampling in cervical screening, and a study of knowledge and attitudes to each screening programme.

We also facilitate research funded by outside agencies where that research is relevant to and required by the programme, for example the Irish Cancer Society and Women’s Health Funding from the Department of Health.

Sharing our learning and expertise

We share the findings of our research and studies by publishing papers in medical journals, presenting at conferences and publishing blogs on our website.