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Editor,—A well organised cervical screening programme has considerable benefits; however, one negative aspect is anxiety associated with abnormal results. The NHSCSP guidelines state that an explanatory leaflet should be given to women with abnormal cytology and those being referred for colposcopy, with a verbal explanation wherever possible.1 We assessed if there is any additional benefit from a verbal explanation, following written information, when an abnormal smear result is given, in understanding and future attendance for colposcopy and cytology follow up.
Between April and December 1998 we recruited 89 women with abnormal cytology. All women attending for results are given the NHSCSP leaflet “What your abnormal result means” if their smear shows borderline changes, mild, moderate, or severe dyskaryosis. The study women completed a questionnaire after reading the leaflet. A nurse (BH) then gave a verbal explanation about the smear result. They then completed the questionnaire again. Attendance for colposcopy and cytology follow up was recorded, default being defined as non-attendance without cancellation. Default rates were compared with other women with abnormal cytology during the same period. They were not included in the study as they attended when the specified nurse was not available. They had all received the leaflet but not a structured explanation.
The explanation for each woman took approximately 15 minutes. The results of the questionnaire before and after explanation are shown in table 1. There was a significant improvement in understanding and reduction in anxiety. The control group comprised 104 women. In the study group 65 required colposcopy; three (4.6%) defaulted, compared with seven of 38 (18.4%) women not receiving a verbal explanation; p= 0.03 Fisher's exact test; OR 0.21 (95% CI 0.03–1.03). Of the study group, 81 should have attended for follow up cytology 6 months after colposcopy or smear showing borderline changes; 12 (15%) defaulted compared with 37 of 95 (38.9%) women not receiving a verbal explanation; p= <0.001 χ2 test; OR 0.18 (95% CI 0.08–0.41). Eventually only one (1.5%) in the study group and two (5.3%) of the controls did not attend for colposcopy, and 11 (13.8%) and 24 (25.3%) for follow up cytology.
Despite the leaflet the women in our study still had misunderstandings and anxieties. The verbal explanation helped clarify these. Verbal information can be tailored to the individual, some requested detailed descriptions, others preferred a simpler explanation (as reported previously2). This is not possible with written information. Marteau et al found that a brief, simple booklet increased knowledge and reduced anxiety whereas a more complex booklet increased knowledge but did not reduce anxiety.3
The default rates were lower in those receiving the verbal explanation. Lerman et al found that women with abnormal cytology who defaulted colposcopy appointments were more worried about cancer with impairment of mood and sleep.4 Following the explanation our default rate for colposcopy was within the 15% recommended target,5 and follow up cytology was similar to the rates reported in primary care.6
There are deficits in this study. The lack of randomisation means the improvement in default rates could be the result of baseline differences rather than the verbal explanation. However, it has shown benefit to the women by improving understanding. The department has also benefited; although extra nursing time has been required, the lower default rates for colposcopy and cytology has reduced the clerical, medical, and secretarial time normally required recalling non-attendees.
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