Cancer screening award

…for Dr Katie Robb.

A psychologist and Senior Lecturer has been awarded the Scottish Cancer Foundation Prize and Evans Forrest medal for her research into the early diagnosis of cancer. Dr Katie Robb (University of Glasgow), who has spent her career using psychological knowledge to develop interventions to improve cancer screening attendance and awareness, was the first ever psychologist to win the foundation prize and medal.

Since her PhD with the late Professor Jane Wardle, who pioneered research on cancer prevention, screening, and early diagnosis, Robb has devoted all of her research to the field. Thanks to a Cancer Research UK fellowship Robb was able to explore ways to improve public uptake of home-based bowel cancer screening which involves taking a stool sample and sending it for analysis.

Robb explored whether including testimonials of the bowel screening experience along with the test would have an impact on the likelihood people would do the test themselves in the future. ‘As it’s a test you do at home there’s no interaction with a health professional when you do it, so the information that is sent along with this test provides an important opportunity to engage with people. Typically in the health service we give people facts and figures and tell them things like “1 in 20 people are going to get bowel cancer”… I wanted to see what the response would be to providing more experiential information to people. I was interested to see if you could use testimonials or stories and experiences in a positive way.’

Robb’s results showed that potential screening participants found the stories reassuring and the approach also increased their intention to take part in bowel screening in the future. Recently Scotland’s bowel cancer screening programme has adopted this approach after Robb informed them of her findings.

During this time Robb was also heavily involved with developing the Cancer Awareness Measure, intended to provide a standardised method of assessing cancer awareness. The measure has been adopted in the UK and in many countries across the globe and allows for the assessment of changes in the awareness of cancer across time, between and within countries.

Now Robb has her own research group at the University of Glasgow where she remains dedicated to applying psychological knowledge to improving cancer outcomes. ‘We’re looking at adding information to the bowel screening invitation to see if it has an impact on uptake. We know that many people intend to do bowel screening but don’t get around to it. So the idea we’ve taken, that has been successfully used in psychology in smoking cessation, is if you give people a planning help sheet this can help them overcome barriers and find a solution. It could be something as simple as, “If I keep forgetting to do the bowel screening test” and then the solution would be “then I’ll leave the kit in the bathroom to remind me”.’

Although there are ample opportunities for the role of psychologists in improving cancer awareness and early diagnosis the area remains under-researched. Robb, who now has a post-doc and three PhD students, also hopes to train a cohort of people in this area over the coming years. 

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