Cervical CancerCervical CancerClinical TopicsOncologyUncategorized

Cervical cancer screening uptake among medically underserved women

Author(s): Erica A. Newfield, DNP, RN, PHNA-BC; Kelley S. Borella, DNP, CRNP, WHNP-BC; Melanie P. Baucom, DNP, CRNP, FNP-BC; Wendy T. Madden, DNP, RN, OCN; Aimee C. Holland, DNP, CRNP, WHNP-BC, NP-C, FAANP, FAAN; Loretta T. Lee, PhD, RN, CRNP, FNP-BC, CNE

The gaps in cervical cancer screening uptake have severe implications for health outcomes among women within medically underserved populations. Cervical cancer screening is an effective intervention to detect cervical changes early, decreasing mortality risks. This article summarizes current disparities in cervical cancer screening among women in the United States who are unhoused, low income, eligible for Medicaid, Native Americans, and migrant farmworkers. Implications for women’s health nurse practitioner practice and leadership in quality improvement initiatives are provided.

In 2023, an estimated 13,960 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed and approximately 4,310 women will die of the disease.1 The burden of preventable mortality from cervical cancer disproportionally affects women from medically underserved populations (MUPs).2–5 Decreased uptake of cervical cancer screening among women within MUPs is a significant contributor to this disparity.6 Regular cervical cancer screening reduces the incidence of and mortality from cervical cancer.7

The Health Resources and Services Administration defines an MUP as having a shortage of primary care health services for a specific population subset or an established geographic area.8,9 Women who are unhoused, low income, eligible for Medicaid, Native American, and migrant farmworkers are among those considered MUPs.8 These groups may face economic, cultural, or linguistic barriers to healthcare.8,9 The purpose of this article is to summarize cervical cancer screening uptake disparities in the United States among women within these specific MUPs. Implications for women’s health nurse practitioners (WHNPs) at practice, systems, and community levels are provided.

Cervical cancer screening impact and scope of disparity

Among women age 30 years and older, cotesting every 5 years is more sensitive to detect cervical changes than a Pap test alone.7 Clinical trials also support screening with an HPV DNA or RNA test alone as a superior screening method capable of detecting high-grade cervical dysplasia.7 Cervical cancer mortality in the US has decreased from 2.8 deaths per 100,000 women in 2000 to 2.2 per 100,000 in 2020.10 Women who have not received adequate screening are most likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer.11 The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) cervical cancer screening recommendation informs adequate cervical cancer screening for average-risk women age 21 to 29 years to be a Pap test every 3 years, and for women age 30 to 65 years either a Pap test every 3 years, a high-risk HPV test every 5 years, or a cotest every 5 years.11 Of females 21 to 65 years who have not had a hysterectomy, 74% completed screening for cervical cancer by the most current USPSTF screening recommendation.12 This is lower than the 79% Healthy People 2030 screening target.12

Women within medically underserved populations

Equitable cervical cancer screening uptake is not a reality across populations in the US. The Box lists selected factors contributing to disparities.6,13–17 Women within MUPs carry a disproportionate burden of inadequate cervical cancer screening uptake.14,18–21 Select MUPs include unhoused individuals, people with low income, those eligible for Medicaid, Native Americans, and migrant farmworkers.8

Box. Barriers to cervical cancer screening uptake for women6,13-17

  • Achieving less than a high school degree, a high school degree, or some college (compared to women who are college graduates)
  • Household income levels less than $50,000 annually
  • Being un- or under-insured, or having public insurance, eg, Medicaid
  • Being a member of a racial or ethnic minority group
  • Rural living

Women experiencing homelessness

Data collected between 2012 and 2014 document 76% of interviewed 21- to 65-year-old homeless women living in New York City’s shelters self-reported Pap test completion within the prior 3 years.22 Researchers acknowledge the potential for over-reporting in this self-reported Pap test data.22 Among a cohort of homeless adults receiving care at Boston Health Care for the Homeless, cervical cancer deaths substantially surpassed expected mortality at the population level, indicating a need to improve cancer screening uptake in this population.3

Researchers have recognized diverse factors contributing to Pap test utilization among homeless women, and have suggested rates may be similar to utilization among women with less than a high school degree and women living below 100% of the federal poverty level (FPL).18

Lack of knowledge, negative screening experiences, and transportation also are recognized barriers to cervical cancer screening in this population.18,23

Women who have low income and/or are Medicaid eligible

Currently 63% of females with an income less than 200% of the FPL are up to date on cervical cancer screening, compared to 76% among females with an income at 200% or greater.19 Multiple factors affect cervical cancer screening uptake among women with low incomes. Lack of adequate insurance coverage is consistently associated with lower rates of up-to-date screening.23–25

Breast and cervical cancer screening are Medicaid-covered services in most states.26 Thus Medicaid is critical to mitigating insurance-status-based barriers to cervical cancer screening uptake.13 However, disparities in cervical cancer screening persist even among women enrolled in Medicaid, as care coordination and sociocultural barriers to screening endure.20 Enrolled women are disproportionately low income, have less than a high school education, and are racial and ethnic minorities.26

Claims data for Medicaid-insured women age 30 to 59 years inform 31% completed two or more Pap tests in a 5-year period (2010–2015) to be adherent with the 3-year screening recommendation, a completion rate lower than women insured commercially (59%).20 Among Medicaid-enrolled women, 41% did not have documentation of a completed Pap test versus 22% in the commercially insured population, despite many having a billable healthcare visit in the 5 years assessed.20 Additionally, claims data-based Pap test completion rates across Medicaid and commercially insured women are lower than rates reflected in self-reported Pap test completion data.20

Native American women

American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) women have higher cervical cancer incidence and distant cervical cancers compared to non-Hispanic White women and later-stage diagnoses.2

They are 34% less likely to complete cervical cancer screening with a Pap test than their White women counterparts.14 The 2022 Government Performance and Results Act prevention measures reported by the Indian Health Service document that 33% of female patients age 24 through 64 years without a documented history of hysterectomy completed cervical cancer screening with either a Pap test within the prior 3 years or a Pap test with HPV DNA cotest in the prior 5 years.27 Of the eight states with available AI/AN Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS) Pap test data, 75% have a screening completion percentage lower than the Healthy People 2030 screening target.12,28 For AI/AN women residing in the Pacific Northwest, individuals assessed to be current with cervical cancer screening in 2019 range from a high of 65% in Washington to a low of 59% in Idaho.29 These data do show slight increases in current screening across the Pacific Northwest states when compared to 2011.29 For rural and urban AI women in the southwest US, having a visit with a healthcare provider in the previous 12 months is a strong predictor of Pap test use within the past 3 years.30 Among rural AIs in the Southwest, currently having a job and household income are strong predictors.30

Migrant farmworkers

The majority of migrant farmworkers in the US are Hispanic (78%).31 The average stage of formal education completed is ninth grade.31 Approximately two-thirds (62%) of these workers report Spanish as their primary language, with one-third (32%) reporting that they could speak English “well.”31 One-fifth live below the FPL, and overall, only 28% of migrant farmworkers have health insurance for non-work-related injury or illness.31 In a review of the available literature, researchers found low English language assimilation, and not possessing health insurance or costs, as barriers to breast and cervical cancer screening among US female Latinx migrant farmworkers.21 Additional barriers include lack of correct knowledge about cancer, lack of transportation, limited-service access hours, and fear of the healthcare system.21

Implications for WHNPs

The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP), an evidence-based program, provides medically underserved women with access to breast and cervical cancer screening.32 The program provides a roadmap WHNPs can use for effecting change in elements impacting screening uptake within practice, community, healthcare systems, and policy.33 Categorized by practice, systems, and community level, the Table lists promising practices implemented by the NBCCEDP grantees and interventions noted in the literature that the authors of this article suggest aligning with a community-centered screening enhancement model.20,21,34-38 WHNPs are able to provide leadership in quality improvement (QI) initiatives for increasing cervical cancer screening.

Table. Facilitators to cervical cancer screening uptake for women within medically underserved populations20,21,34-38

Practice level
Culture- and language-appropriate cervical cancer education about risk factors, screening, and treatment
Shared decision-making conversation(s) about values and health preferences
Systems level
Methods to recognize age-based screening outreach opportunities
Outreach to women with few visits with a provider
Screening completion incentives
Health insurance coverage
Health coaches for telephone-based Pap test education, barrier identification/mitigation, and reminders
Community level
Interpreter facilitated group-setting appointments
Community-based patient navigators to educate and connect women to screening
Community organizations with population-specific connections to provide screening outreach
Community-based screening event
Outreach house to house
Radio screening advertisement
Mobile screening opportunities
Community-centered information sessions
Primary care providers giving care in communities to enhance relationships

Practice level

Quality improvement initiatives at the practice level to increase cervical cancer screening uptake include structured strategies to ensure providers impart screening awareness education, encourage clients to have appropriate screening, provide person-centered, culturally competent care that is focused to each client’s “needs, barriers and facilitators,” make the Pap test visit a positive event, and treat clients with “respect and dignity.”18,23,39 For example, survey data from New Mexico’s Zuni Pueblo Tribe document that having a greater understanding of cervical cancer risk equates to completing screening for cervical cancer.40 Other QI initiatives can support provider adherence to current cervical cancer screening and management guidelines, address barriers outside of health like transportation, and facilitate patient self-sampling for high-risk HPV.6,41,42 Continuous monitoring and evaluation of current processes support ongoing quality and access improvements and increased uptake of cervical cancer screening.

Systems level

Persistent cervical cancer screening uptake disparities between women from MUPs and majority populations indicate a need for systems-level interventions. Select evidence-based solutions reported in the literature include linking education with navigation support and providing access to cervical cancer screening at Federally Qualified Health Care Centers (FQHCs), systems central to lowering race/ethnicity-based health disparities.43,44

Investigators evaluated the impact of a multicomponent intervention linking culturally appropriate cervical cancer education with navigation support for screening services on cervical cancer screening rates among Korean American women living in the US.43 Participants were provided with a 2-hour educational session presented by bilingual community health educators.43 The intervention significantly increased cervical cancer screening in Korean women and built on similar outcomes from a prior pilot study in the same population.43 WHNPs could partner with bilingual navigators to develop similar QI initiatives for healthcare systems.

Investigators compared population-level Pap test rates to rates among women receiving care at FQHCs.44 In this setting, African Americans and Hispanic/Latinos women were more likely than non-Hispanic White women to have received a Pap test.44 WHNPs are needed in FQHCs to lead QI initiatives that use all clinic visits as an opportunity to identify individuals due for cervical cancer screening, provide screening at that visit or make a timely appointment to return for screening, and provide targeted client reminder and follow-up interventions.6,20

Community level

The Community Preventive Services Task Force (CPSTF) guides community-based health promotion and disease prevention intervention approaches to improve cervical cancer screening uptake.45 A systematic review of articles published from 2010 to 2018 revealed the engagement of community health workers (CHWs) increased cervical cancer screening by a median of 12.8 percentage points compared to no intervention or usual care.45 In effect, the CPSTF recommends collaborative practice with CHWs to increase cervical cancer screening uptake for women from MUPs.45 Community health workers delivering HPV-self sampling kits to women is a successful strategy to reduce barriers and expand access to cervical cancer screening.46 Trusted community members without formalized healthcare education, CHWs can meet women from MUPs where they live, eat, play, work, and worship.47 The WHNP, a skilled healthcare provider responsible for diagnosis, psychosocial assessment, and illness management, is well positioned to provide leadership to leverage the CHWs expertise on increasing cervical cancer screening uptake among MUPs.


Despite efforts to increase public awareness about the positive impact routine screening plays in preventing the incidence of and mortality from cervical cancer, disparities in screening continue. A need for more research to understand facilitators and barriers to cervical cancer screening among MUPs is evident. Additional research evidence will support WHNPs as they lead and develop innovative, culturally competent, evidence-based QI initiatives designed to ensure equitable uptake of cervical cancer screening, thereby mitigating cervical cancer incidence and preventable mortality among MUPs.

Erica A. Newfield is Assistant Professor and Kelley S. Borella is Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Melanie P. Baucom is Instructor and Wendy T. Madden is Instructor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Aimee C. Holland is Professor and Associate Dean of Graduate Clinical Education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Loretta T. Lee is Associate Professor and Vice Chair of the Department of Family, Community and Health Systems at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The authors have no actual or potential conflicts of interest in relation to the contents of this article.

Womens Healthcare. 2023;11(6):24-29. doi: 10.51256/ WHC122324


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KEY WORDS: cervical cancer, screening uptake, disparities, medically underserved

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