Doctors demand answers over cervical cancer test delay

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By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
Irish Examiner Political Correspondent

A leading GP group is seeking an immediate meeting with HSE officials over the deepening cervical cancer tests crisis, due to widespread concern among its members over the number of tests being sent back because they have expired.

The National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP) demanded the meeting last night, saying there are genuine fears that the problem is far bigger than is being suggested.

In a letter to the head of the HSE’s national screening service, Charles O’Hanlon, NAGP president Maitiu Ó Tuathail said the GP group wants absolute transparency on what has caused the issue.

And, just 24 hours before Health Minister Simon Harris attends an emergency meeting of the Dáil’s health committee to answer questions both on cervical cancer tests and on the National Children’s Hospital scandal, Dr Ó Tuathail’s letter said the HSE must now organise a meeting with GPs to clarify what has gone wrong.

“Our members can clearly show the samples have been sent in ample time, that the sample was in date when taken and sent, but that there was a delay at some point between the sending of the sample and the processing of the sample in the lab,” Dr Ó Tuathail wrote to the HSE.

“This is presumably as a result of the increase in smear samples the labs are receiving. I am aware that the turn-around time for processing smears, in some cases, is now 12 weeks.

“This would seem problematic, given that smears are deemed expired at six weeks from the time they have been taken.

“This issue is significant as it means patients must undergo a repeat smear, in three months’ time, adding further to any fears patients may have.

“The note to the doctors does not indicate why the delay took place, and in some cases patients have contacted our members asking why they were slow in sending the sample to the lab, when this was not the case. This is most unhelpful.

“We would welcome a meeting with you if we can assist you in resolving this issue. We will need to communicate with our members as to what is occurring, as they in turn will have to deal with women who have yet another repeat smear to face.”

The NAGP letter — which was also copied to the Health Minister, Simon Harris, and the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar — came after a week of growing concern surrounding the cervical cancer tests service.

This is because of Dáil revelations that 1,000 of the free smear checks which took place in the aftermath of last year’s original cervical cancer tests scandal are effectively useless because chronic backlogs mean the accuracy of their results cannot be guaranteed.

A separate issue surrounding approximately 6,000 HPV tests has also emerged, with the HSE due to publish the exact number of women affected later this week.

Meanwhile, Opposition parties have once again demanded that Mr Harris answers key questions on this issue and on the subject of the runaway costs of the new National Children’s Hospital, at an emergency meeting of the Dáil’s health committee tomorrow.

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly and his Sinn Féin counterpart, Louise O’Reilly, said there is a need for complete clarity on the issue immediately, due to legitimate concerns over both scandals.

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