New Zealand to upgrade IT systems for breast and cervical cancer screenings

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The government of New Zealand has revealed its plan to upgrade the technologies behind its screening programmes for breast and cervical cancers by 2023.

WHY IT MATTERS

New Zealand records approximately 3,200 people getting diagnosed with breast cancer each year, resulting in around 600 deaths. To address this, the government introduced BreastScreen Aotearoa (BSA) – its national breast cancer screening programme – to provide free mammography screening every two years for women aged 45-69 who have no symptoms of breast cancer. The programme operates on an opt-in model, enabling women to choose if they want to get tested.

However, the “ageing IT infrastructure puts the programme at risk”, says Dr. Ayesha Verrall, associate Health minister for women’s health.

“It lacks the flexibility to be easily upgraded to meet the needs of the community, and is no longer supported well by vendors,” she added.

To this end, the government has allotted up to NZ$55.6 million ($40.1 million) in a major upgrade to the programme’s IT system this year. Another NZ$10 million ($7.22 million) has been earmarked to catch up on missed breast screenings during the community quarantine. The country already invests over NZ$60 million ($43.3 million) each year in providing breast screening services around the country.

The new system will help the BSA conduct direct invites and targeted campaigns to reach 271,000 more eligible women who are yet to be tested for breast cancer. It will also enable the programme to identify priority groups of women who have yet to take part in it. “The government is committed to improving health outcomes for our hard-to-reach communities and this is an important step in making that happen,” Minister Verrall said.

Additionally, New Zealand will fund a new IT system as it turns to human papillomavirus (HPV) testing for cervical cancer. It has set aside up to NZ$53 million ($38.2 million) for its national cervical screening programme this year.

It will develop a simple and quick swab test for HPV, the most common cause of cervical cancer, to replace the current smear test that screens 1.4 million eligible women aged 25-69. “This will help to reduce the barriers to getting screened,” Verrall said.

In the country, about 160 women develop cervical cancer each year with 50 dying from it. Despite reducing incidences and death rates by over half since 1990, only 61% of eligible wāhine Māori (indigenous women) have access to the government’s service due to various reasons, including time, cost and whakamā – which refers to shame or embarrassment.  

Citing clinical modelling predictions, Minister Verrall said HPV testing will prevent about 400 additional cases of cervical cancer over 17 years and save around 138 more lives. She further cited its efficacy in Australia and European countries where women who test negative for the disease are screened every five years, compared to its triennial testing requirement.

THE LARGER TREND

Past research points to the effectiveness of artificial intelligence in detecting breast and cervical cancers. Google Health revealed last year that its AI model spotted breast cancer in de-identified screening mammograms with greater accuracy. In the same year, the National Cancer Institute also found that its AI algorithm used in dual-stain test outperformed in screening cervical cancer over the standard Pap cytology.

In the mammography space, players like Whiterabbit and Zebra Medical Vision have received clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration for their AI-powered breast screening tools. This year, Volpara Health bought its competitor CRA Health to expand its screening services.

Meanwhile, an AI cloud diagnostic platform to screen cervical cancer was developed in China in 2019.

ON THE RECORD

“We are able to invest in and implement changes in health that will deliver for all New Zealanders thanks to our economy performing better than forecast because of the Government’s successful management of COVID-19,” Health Minister Andrew Little said ahead of the May 20 announcement of the government’s 2021 Budget.

“In the last three budgets, we have made significant investments in health including delivering the biggest funding boost to maternity care in a decade. Our investment today builds on this so we can continue to address some of the country’s long-standing issues,” he added.