In a first for the NHS, Barts Health NHS Trust in partnership with the My Body Back Project has launched a UK-wide pilot service offering women who have been sexually assaulted access to specialist clinical and psychological support to undergo a cervical smear test and testing for sexual infections.
The first clinic will be held on Thursdsy 6 August 2015 at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London.
Evidence from research and engagement work* suggests that women who have experienced sexual violence do want to be screened but find it difficult to attend regular cervical screening; potentially putting them at increased risk of cervical cancer.**
The My Body Back clinic offers a unique combination of an experienced female smear taker who has expertise in the area, a clinical psychologist from the Barts Health sexual health service, as well as an advocate from the My Body Back Project. Working together, they will enable women to share control and give them the opportunity to learn about their body in the process of having the smear test. It is hoped that this combination of support will help women to feel in control and stay calm and focused during the examination, enabling them to have a more positive experience of having a smear test.
The environment of the service is also pioneering. Women will be given time to have choices about how they are treated and the language used by clinicians, and the opportunity to create a comfortable atmosphere with the opportunity for aromatherapy, music and massage.
There are around 3,000 new cases of cervical cancer in the UK each year and almost 1,000 women die each year from the disease. The NHS cervical screening programme offers regular smear tests to all women registered with a GP from the ages of 25 to 64. Regular screening can save lives by detecting treatable early changes in the cells of the cervix.
Approximately 1 in 5 women do not attend when invited for a smear test, including women that the clinic is trying to reach.
The unique integrated service will run fortnightly at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London until November 2015. The clinic and women's experiences will be evaluated to inform the need for the service to be continued.
Amanda O'Donovan, consultant clinical psychologist at Barts Health NHS Trust, explained: "We know that intimate physical health examinations can trigger distress or flashbacks for women who have been assaulted, making it impossible for them to have the test.
"At the My Body Back clinic at Barts Health, we use techniques such as mindfulness to help women to focus on the 'here and now' of the examination and to manage their levels of anxiety and physical tension. Women will be able to choose the environment, how the test happens and the time it takes; they are in control the whole time. It is more than a procedure, it is about their wellbeing.
"We also aim to show that many women who have experienced sexual assault want to and will attend cervical screening with specialist support."
Pavan Amara, founder of the My Body Back Project and trainee nurse, has been contracted as an independent sexual violence co-ordinator to work alongside highly experienced sexual health professionals at Barts Health.
Before each clinic, Pavan will meet with each woman to explain what will happen in the clinic and answer any questions they have, as well as discuss their individual needs, wishes and any negative 'triggers' to avoid. Women will not be asked to disclose any information that they do not wish to.
The date of the first clinic (6 August 2015) coincides with her birthday and is exactly one year since she established the My Body Back Project.
Pavan said: "I wanted to start the clinic because I knew from personal experience this was an area that needed to be addressed.
"I spoke to other women who had experienced rape about the physical repercussions of sexual violence for them. They said they found it incredibly difficult to attend cervical screening appointments, but they wanted to attend.
"They told me that they wanted a specialist service set up that would make it possible for them to attend for a smear test and which would operate exactly as our clinic will be operating. So, I set up My Body Back Project and we started working with Barts Health NHS Trust.
"I hope this clinic can help many other women in the same situation."