Breast screening controversy triggers review by cancer czar

The NHS breast screening programme will be formally reviewed by an independent panel following doubts over whether its benefits outweigh potential harm.

Professor Richards: according to current advice including from the WHO, breast cancer screening saves lives and the benefits considerably outweigh the harms.
Professor Richards: according to current advice including from the WHO, breast cancer screening saves lives and the benefits considerably outweigh the harms.

Professor Mike Richards, England’s national cancer director, said the review was launched to resolve ‘ongoing controversy’ over the programme.

It follows an open letter from Professor Susan Bewley, a consultant obstetrician at King’s College London, who said NHS leaflets had ‘exaggerated benefits and did not spell out the risk’ of screening.

She said: ‘The oft repeated statement that "1,400 lives a year are saved" has not been subjected to proper scrutiny.’

Research by the Nordic Cochrane Centre had suggested that harms may outweigh the benefits. It advised that screening information should be more balanced.

Responding, Professor Richards wrote in the BMJ that he believed screening programmes ‘should be based on the best available evidence’.

He said that according to current advice including from the WHO, breast cancer screening saves lives and the benefits considerably outweigh the harms.

But an independent review will be conducted to resolve the ‘controversy’, he said.

The government is also establishing a new process for developing information for public consumption about screening programmes, he said.

‘I hope this reassures you that I take the current controversy very seriously,’ he wrote.

He added that, should the review find the balance of harms outweighs the benefits, he will refer the evidence to the National Screening Committee and ministers.

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