August 16, 2023

Cervical cancer screening: Exploring the at-home HPV test

Kaiser Permanente is at the forefront of cervical cancer research. Find out how home tests for HPV — a leading cause of cervical cancer — help increase early detection.

Soon, patients may have the option to take easy, convenient tests for HPV in the privacy of their own homes.

Scientific breakthroughs in cancer screening have saved many lives over the past decades. But sometimes the biggest barrier to effective cancer screening isn’t scientific knowledge. It’s what people have to do to get screened.

Take cervical cancer. There are several ways to help prevent cervical cancer. One way is to identify and remove precancers caused by high-risk strains of the human papillomavirus, or HPV.

Deaths from cervical cancer in the United States have declined dramatically over the last 50 years. This is mainly due to screening for HPV in people with cervixes.

But recently screening rates have been declining.

Barriers to cervical cancer screening

One in 4 women don’t receive regular HPV screenings. And half of all diagnosed cervical cancers occur in people who are not screened.

When asked why they miss cervical cancer screenings, people point to many barriers.

Many lack the time and transportation to get to screening appointments. Others say screenings are uncomfortable or embarrassing. And pelvic exams can be triggering for people who have experienced trauma.

Researchers at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute set out to see if more people would get screened if they had access to more convenient options.

What we’re learning could change the landscape of cervical cancer screening for patients everywhere.

Testing for HPV at home

Kaiser Permanente has already boosted colorectal cancer screening rates among our members. Mailing at-home tests to people when they are due for screenings was key to that success.

Using that program as a model, our team conducted a study to see if at-home tests for HPV could increase screening rates for cervical cancer.

The research study included 16,590 people from 30 to 65 years old. We sent participants home kits with everything they needed to collect a sample swab.

They returned their samples to our labs for testing to see if they had the HPV strains most likely to cause cervical cancer. They received their results and follow-up care just like patients who had been screened in one of our clinics.

Our research showed that samples collected at home detect HPV just as well as samples collected by a clinician.

Learning how to improve the experience of at-home HPV testing

Our team also tracked response rates when they mailed HPV testing kits to people who were overdue for cervical cancer screening.

Mailing HPV kits increased screening by more than 50%.

A follow-up survey showed that people who returned the kits had very positive feelings about the experience.

Some people who didn’t return the kits said they felt unsure about how to use them correctly. Others said they didn’t want to insert the swab or felt embarrassed to use the kit.

Our team is working on addressing these challenges in an ongoing study of 33,000 people.

The study explores different outreach approaches based on participants’ prior screening behavior. It also explores whether information included with the test kits can motivate people to get screened.

The future of at-home HPV tests

Although several countries use at-home HPV tests, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved the kits. But research at Kaiser Permanente and other institutions is helping to pave the way for their approval in the United States.

At-home HPV testing kits would give people a more convenient choice for early detection of cervical cancer.

For some people, that choice could save their lives.

Learn more about cancer care at Kaiser Permanente.