Over a third of breast cancer screening programmes are yet to meet a commitment to upgrade to digital mammography screening by this year.

The Department of Health’s cancer reform strategy in 2007 made a commitment for all programmes to have at least one digital mammography machine “by 2010”.

The strategy said that “PCTs will need to give high priority to full implementation”. But - according to data collected by the NHS Breast Screening Programme and seen by HSJ - many have not yet met the commitment.

But by the end of August this year only 49 out of the 81 cancer screening programs in England had one machine or more and only 10 had switched to full digital screening for all their patients.

NHS Breast Screening Programme assistant director Sarah Sellars said that despite the slow progress by August she expected the large majority of programmes to have fully rolled out at least one digital unit by the end of this year.

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK with nearly 46,000 women diagnosed every year. However mammography is the only area in which old fashioned film rather than digital methods are still routinely used in the NHS.

Digital screening units produce higher quality images which can be manipulated on a computer screen, reducing the need for repeat screening and the risk of false positives. They also produce less radiation and are more cost efficient.

A source told HSJ the target was being missed due to the lack of central support to negotiate buying the equipment.

Chief executive of Breakthrough Breast Cancer Jeremy Hughes responded saying even the 2007 target – apparently missed – was too modest.

“One digital mammography machine per screening programme is little help to the thousands of women who will still be screened with out-dated, less accurate equipment,” he said.

“All screening units must be modernised urgently so that lives can be saved”.

Britain’s cancer survival rates lag behind other European countries, much of this due to later diagnosis. Screening is a key way of tackling this.”

Ms Sellars, said: “[We are] currently moving from film-based technology to digital and so far 60 per cent of units have at least one digital scanner. By the end of the year we expect the large majority of units to offer digital screening.

“Although it is likely that a small number of local programmes will not achieve this, we expect them to be able to offer digital screening in 2011.”