The Government has launched an independent review of breast cancer screening amid growing controversy over the benefits of the programme versus its harms.
National cancer director Professor Sir Mike Richards announced the investigation in the wake of evidence that breast screening may do patients more harm than good, and claims from leading consultants that the NHS ‘exaggerated the benefits’ of screening without spelling out the risks.
Earlier this month, evidence from the Cochrane Collaboration suggested that the NHS screening programme risks overtreating some women for cancers that might never harm them; subjecting them potentially damaging treatments in the process.
The research prompted Professor Susan Bewley, consultant obstetrician at King’s College London, to write an open letter urging Professor Richards to launch a review of the evidence of breast screening.
In the letter, Professor Bewley said that the NHS leaflets ‘exaggerated benefits and did not spell out the risks.’ She added: ‘The oft repeated statement that 1,400 lives a year are saved’ has not been subjected to proper scrutiny.’
Responding in a letter to the BMJ, Professor Richards, raised question marks over the Cochrane study’s methodology, but said he took the ‘current controversy very seriously’ and would lead a review of the evidence in a bid to settle the controversy.
Professor Richards said: ‘Should the independent review conclude that the balance of harms outweighs the benefits of breast screening, I will have no hesitation in referring the findings to the UK National Screening Committee and then ministers.’
‘You have my assurance that I am fully committed to the public being given information in a format that they find acceptable and understandable and that enables them to make truly informed choices.’