CALGARY — Alberta is to introduce new cervical cancer screening guidelines next month that could see some women getting pap smears once every three years.
Dr. Jim Dickinson, a Calgary physician who sat on the committee to create the new guidelines, said they will be released in mid-October.
He wouldn’t say exactly what they will entail, but said research from around the world suggests that many women do not need pap smears every year to prevent cervical cancer.
Many other provinces have already stopped recommending yearly exams for every woman, primarily because abnormal cells that can potentially lead to cervical cancer are very slow to develop and so can be caught on less frequent tests, Dickinson said.
Dr. Donald Davis, former president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, said he’s seen the new guidelines. They recommend that in cases where women have had three normal pap smears at least a year apart within the last five years, it might be appropriate to only give the test every three years, he said.
“It’s sort of been recognized over a number of years that women who have had regular screening on an annual basis and have always had negative pap smears, the chances of them developing something positive is very remote,” said Davis, who practises in Medicine Hat, Alta.
“And if it happens, it happens over a period of months and years rather than days and weeks.”
But the guidelines also give an individual doctor discretion to recommend more frequent tests if anything in the patient’s history or physical exam suggests it may be necessary.
“First and foremost, a physician’s opinion trumps everything.”
Dickinson said the countries that have been most successful in reducing cervical cancer rates only require testing every five years — but they’re more effective at getting everyone tested.
In Canada, most people who get cervical cancer are from marginalized populations that get screened very infrequently or not at all, something else the guidelines will attempt to address, he said.
The new guidelines have been in the works for several years and have nothing to do with cutting costs, he said. They are about reaching everyone who needs to be screened based on the best science available.
The Alberta government refused to comment on the new guidelines until they’re officially announced.