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To compare diagnostic performance of conventional Papanicolaou smear with SurePath® liquid-based cytology in a population screening programme.A retrospective comparison was performed on data from two 18-month periods of the screening programme for cervical cancer in the municipality of Copenhagen with conventional Papanicolaou technique (n = 82 116) and liquid-based cytology (n = 84 414).After the conversion to liquid-based cytology the percentage of unsatisfactory samples decreased from 2.3% to 0.3% (P < 0.001), whereas the number of normal cervical samples lacking an endocervical component increased from 8.5% to 8.9% (P < 0.005). The percentage of samples with atypical cells and cells suspicious for malignancy increased from 3% to 4.2% (P < 0.001) and from 1.9% to 2.4% (P < 0.001), respectively. The subsequent histological follow-up showed normal findings decreased from 70.5% to 68.9% and from 28.0% to 26.1%, respectively. However, in relation to the entire screening populations, there was an increase of normal findings from 2.12% to 2.89% after primary atypical diagnosis and from 0.53% to 0.62% after diagnosis of suspicious cells after conversion to the liquid-based technique.This study showed the number of unsatisfactory samples to be significantly reduced with the liquid-based technique. The data suggest that there is an increased detection rate of cervical precancerous lesions with liquid-based cytology, but the number of false positive tests is still high. The specificity of the two tests seems similar, but this cannot be ascertained exactly, because of the fact that follow-up of negative cases is unavailable.