GPs warned HSE of strain on smear test checks five months before scandal broke, says TD

GPs warned HSE of strain on smear test checks five months before scandal broke, says TD
Lisa Chambers

GPs warned the HSE chronic backlogs in cervical cancer smear tests were putting the quality and accuracy of the checks at risk five months before the scandal was publicly revealed.

Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers has demanded answers over why the concern was not made known sooner after saying a GP group wrote to the HSE's national screening service raising the concerns last summer.

Ms Chambers said officials have been aware of the impact of test backlogs for months. She was speaking as Health Minister Simon Harris came under fresh pressure to give a Dáil statement on the crisis after a health committee meeting on Tuesday,

Citing a letter by the National Association of General Practitioners to the HSE in August, Ms Chambers said answers and clarity are needed on concerns the public has been kept in the dark.

"We have been told the Minister was informed in November. However the National Association of General Practitioners wrote to the national screening service in August outlining concerns that 'the turnaround 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 NAGP letter was also copied to the Health Minister and to the Taoiseach and it seems unlikely, given the gravity of the Cervical Check crisis over the previous three months that it would not have been brought to their attention," Ms Chambers said.

The Fianna Fáil call for answers came as HSE sources confirmed officials will not release the full breakdown of exactly how many women have been affected by the cervical cancer tests controversy until next Friday.

Officials said the HSE will finalise the total number of women it believes have been affected by Tuesday, before sending letters to these women and their GPs on Wednesday and Thursday.

Should this schedule be met, the HSE will then publish what it believes is the total number of women affected by what happened - and the breakdown of what year the problems occurred - on Friday.

Over the past 72 hours, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Mr Harris and the HSE have been forced to concede that attempts to address the original cervical cancer tests scandal by offering free smear test checks last year have added to the problems.

This is because 1,000 tests have now been effectively made useless and will have to be re-done because major backlogs meant they were not transferred to a slide within the required six-week period.

A separate but related issue has also emerged over the fact at least 6,000 follow-up HPV tests - used when an unexplained issue has already been identified - have also been delayed.

Meanwhile, the campaign group 221+ has hit out at the latest crises to affect the cervical cancer tests service, saying the delays and the fresh difficulties highlighted this week are "totally unacceptable".

"The capacity must be found as a matter of urgency to clear the present delays and the backlog. It is important that the repeat testing now required on 1,000 of those tests is done without delay," the group said.

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