Thousands of women were given no follow-up cancer screening appointment while many more had their appointment deadline missed due to huge pressure on CervicalCheck services across the country, it has been revealed.
Many women have seen their target waiting time for colposcopy services missed at clinics across the country while more than 1,500 received no appointment at all due to increased pressure on cervical cancer screening services in the wake of the controversy in 2018.
A colposcopy, which usually takes place following a smear test, is the medical procedure to check for cancer in women.
CervicalCheck’s target for high-grade referrals from the cervical screening programme is that 90% of women referred would be seen within four weeks of referral and that 90% of low-grade referrals are seen within eight weeks.
According to the latest figures, 70% of high-grade referrals were seen within four weeks and 57% of low-grade referrals were seen within eight weeks nationally.
Dr Nóirín Russell, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Cork University Maternity Hospital and lead colposcopist at University Hospital Kerry, said CervicalCheck screening has seen increased demand for screening services in the wake of the CervicalCheck controversy.
“We’ve seen 57% more women with the same amount of resources. That has led to waiting lists in colposcopy, which is something we’ve never had,” she said.
“Before April 2018, 98% of women were seen within eight weeks of referral - it was one of the few areas of the health service where there wasn’t a waiting list.
“Since April 2018 and the increase in referrals, there is now a huge backlog and women are ringing colposcopy clinics because they don’t know when they’re going to be seen,” she added.
HSE figures show that, as of October 31 last year, eight of the 15 colposcopy clinics across Ireland were failing to meet both the eight-week and four-week waiting time guidelines for colposcopy services.
Two more clinics, in Letterkenny and Mayo, were failing to meet one of the two waiting times.
In Cork, just 50% of women were being seen within the four-week guidelines along with 24% within the eight-week guidelines.
Almost 1,000 women in Cork were not given an appointment as of October 31 last year.
In Limerick meanwhile, 365 women were left waiting without an appointment date as just 14% of women were seen within eight weeks.
Less than 13% of women awaiting colposcopy services were seen within eight weeks at separate clinics in Sligo and Wexford.
Almost 150 women in Sligo were also left without an appointment date.
Colposcopy clinics in Tallaght, Dundalk, Kerry, Mayo and the National Maternity Hospital all managed to remain compliant with the waiting time guidelines.
However, 71 women in Dundalk were not given an appointment date along with 18 in Mayo.
The CervicalCheck controversy came to light in April 2018 when Limerick woman Vicky Phelan highlighted communication issues surrounding an audit of smears belonging to women who were diagnosed with cervical cancer in the years after their tests.
Dr Russell said the controversy led to increased demand on the service but that additional resources were not provided, resulting in waiting lists.
“This is leading to a huge amount of worry for women and also severe stress for staff because they can see these women need to be seen but they don’t have the appointment slots or staff to give them,” she said.
In a statement, the HSE said colposcopy services have experienced significant pressure in recent months, due to an increase in referrals from general practice and an unprecedented increase in participation by women in the cervical screening programme CervicalCheck.
The health service said it recognises that this may, in some cases, lead to longer waiting times and that it is working closely with clinics to rectify this.