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New cancer screening targets put focus on prevention

News

The budget changed the future of various preventive health programs. Now, the Federal Government expects “progressive” improvement in cancer screening.

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The portfolio budget statements for the Department of Health reveal the Federal Government has ditched the unambitious targets for breast, cervical and bowel cancer screening programs.

For years, governments have set a target for the screening programs that simply maintains whatever participation rate they achieved the year before – even if that would put the program into decline.

For example, BreastScreen Australia actively seeks women in the 50-74 year age bracket, due to their higher risk profile and the chance to detect cancers early. However, the program has struggled to lift participation, and the previous budget just kept the target at 54 per cent participation, as was last recorded, through to the end of 2024.

The budget handed down on Tuesday night listed the target for all screening programs as a “progressive increase”. In 2024-25, that measure even comes with a figure, setting an end goal of 53 per cent for bowel cancer screening (up from 43.8 per cent in 2021-22), 64 per cent for cervical cancer screening (up from 46.5 per cent in 2021-22) and 65 per cent for breast cancer screening (up from 54.3 per cent in 2021-22).

To put this in context, BreastScreen Australia has never even reached 60 per cent participation from the target age group.

A previous review of BreastScreen Australia recommended free mammograms effectively be rationed, and given only to those in the target age group. While that recommendation was never implemented, and the target age group has become larger, the department is now reconsidering the benefit in providing free mammograms to women aged over 75.

Future budgets will, however, give governments the opportunity to forecast falling short of the targets, another new element of transparency.

The budget included $100.4 million for improvements to cervical and breast cancer screening programs.

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