Breast screening. Cervical screening. Bowel screening. These may be familiar to you. You may have even participated in one or more of them. These are three examples of the eight national population screening programmes in Scotland.
Screening for abdominal aortic – more commonly known as AAA screening – is one that many people may not have heard of before.
An AAA is a swelling (aneurysm) of the aorta. The abdominal aorta is the main blood vessel that leads away from the heart, down through the abdomen (stomach) to the rest of the body. Aneurysms are a type of vascular condition. This is the collective term for diseases of the arteries, veins and lymphatics (tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste and other unwanted materials).
If you live in a town with around 30,000 people – for example, Wishaw in North Lanarkshire – at least 1000 men may be living with an AAA at any given time. Vascular conditions account for 40% of all deaths in the UK. Crucially, many of these deaths are entirely preventable.
“If you live in a town with around 30,000 people – for example, Wishaw in North Lanarkshire – at least 1000 men may be living with an AAA at any given time.”
The importance of screening for AAA
As a vascular surgeon, I regularly see men with large AAAs who have been referred to me from the national AAA screening programme. They are referred to me because at the stage where the aorta is 5.5cm or more, the risk of it rupturing is usually higher than the risks associated with the surgery that my colleagues and I perform to repair it.
AAA screening aims to find aneurysms early and monitor or treat them. You may be unaware that you have an aneurysm as AAAs usually show no symptoms. If you do have an AAA and your aneurysm remains undetected it can grow to a point where it can burst. This is a life-threatening emergency and unfortunately many people (around 50-80%) will die from aneurysm rupture –almost half of them before reaching hospital.
Routine AAA screening is offered to eligible men during the year they turn 65. Women, and men under 65, are not routinely screened for an AAA because most ruptured AAAs occur in older men aged over 65. Men are six times more likely to have an AAA than women. Staggeringly, AAAs are estimated to be present in almost 5% of the male population of Scotland aged 65 to 74.
“Routine AAA screening is offered to eligible men during the year they turn 65. Women, and men under 65, are not routinely screened for an AAA because most ruptured AAAs occur in older men aged over 65. Men are 6 times more likely to have an AAA than women. Staggeringly, AAAs are estimated to be present in almost 5% of the male population of Scotland aged 65 to 74.”
What’s involved in AAA screening
Screening to identify whether you have an AAA involves an ultrasound scan of your abdomen. A technician who specialises in AAA screening will measure the size of your aorta (it’s usually around 2cm wide). Most men have a normal result (an aorta measuring less than 3cm) and are discharged from the screening programme. If you do have an AAA and it measures between 3cm and 5.4cm you’ll be asked to return either annually or every 3 months depending on what size it is. Men who have a large aneurysm of 5.5cm and over will be referred to a hospital vascular department to discuss AAA treatment options with someone like me.
Why standards for AAA screening are important
Along this journey patients will meet numerous healthcare professionals – from the ultrasound technicians, specialist nurses, anaesthetists, ward staff, theatre staff and of course, me.
All of the team that supports the AAA screening programme in Scotland work together to ensure that patients experience a safe and high quality standard of care and support. Healthcare Improvement Scotland has recently initiated a project to revise the AAA screening standards which were originally published in 2011. The standards will specify a minimum level of performance for AAA screening services and will apply to all healthcare organisations and all the people who will assist patients on this journey to potentially save their life.
I’m delighted to be chairing the AAA screening standards development group and look forward to working with colleagues from the AAA screening community including those with lived experience of the programme to ensure high quality care for everyone.
Dr Zahid Raza is Chair of the AAA Screening Standards Development Group and a vascular surgeon with NHS Lothian