Health chief refuses resignation calls to 'focus' on CervicalCheck scandal

    Developments today in brief

  • Redress will be offered by the Government where a woman's cancer was missed;
  • A new audit of women who were diagnosed with cancer will be carried out by the end of May;
  • 10 active legal cases similar to Vicky Phelan’s on the records
  • CervicalCheck says it has to prioritise women who were part of the audit. However, new smear test will be available to women on request soon;
  • The Serious Incident Management Team is satisfied that women who received normal results and have no symptoms do not clinically require an urgent test;
  • HSE bossTony O'Brien to devote last months in the job to the issue describing revelations as a 'personal blow'
  • Minister Simon Harris will decide later today on what type of inquiry is needed into the scandal, after meeting Opposition parties.

The Director-General of the Health Service Executive (HSE) has said the cervical cancer screening controversy has come as "personal blow" to him.

Tony O'Brien said he would not resign but instead devote his remaining time until the end of his contract to addressing the "failures".

Tony O'Brien

An audit by CervicalCheck - the national screening programme - of 1,482 women diagnosed with cervical cancer since 2008 had found potential errors in 208 cases with a negative result instead of pre-cancerous signs.

The majority of those 208 women - 162 - were not initially told of the outcome of the audit. Of the 208, 17 women have since died.

Mr O'Brien said about half of the smear test results in women subsequently diagnosed with cervical cancer were audited.

Giving evidence to the Oireachtas Joint Health Committee, Mr O'Brien said it was not known how many more women in this second group were not informed of test errors and work was ongoing to ascertain this.

He said: "At the centre of this issue was our failure to communicate to the women who were the subject of this audit.

"Those women should have been informed and that is something that will happen from now on."

The committee heard that of the original group of 208, contact has been made with the families of 172 and 36 remain to be reached, 14 of whom are outside the public hospital system.

Mr O'Brien said he believed a planned review of issue would find testing laboratories were operating within internationally accepted norms on error levels.

He added: "The women whose cases were reviewed, already had a diagnosis of cancer so the outcome of the review of their cytology [smear test] would not have changed their diagnosis or treatment.

"They were entitled however to know that their case was reviewed and the outcome of that review.

"This was particularly important where the review team drew conclusions that were different to the original interpretation of the smear result."

He added the "recent events are indeed a personal blow to me".

Asked by Fine Gael's Kate O'Connell if he should continue with the rest of his contract, Mr O'Brien said: "Yes. I intend to use the remainder of my time to focus very specifically on this issue."

She replied: "Well, with respect, it's a pity you didn't focus on it before now."

He warned the scandal risked backsliding on attendance rates for screenings which would lead to a "huge public health price" and vowed to restore public confidence in the programme.

Several representatives questioned the credibility of Mr O'Brien's claim he found out through the media about Co Limerick mother Vicky Phelan, who settled a High Court action for 2.5 million euro after being incorrectly told in 2011 that her smear test had given a negative result for cancer.

Vicky Phelan

He said he felt "let down" that he was not aware of the case, which he claimed the State Claims Agency did not seek a confidentiality agreement over.

The committee heard there were 10 similar cases in the pipeline.

Labour's Alan Kelly said: "The public opinion here is this is one big massive cover-up, you shake your heads, I accept that.

"Or else it's one of the most collective largest examples of incompetence in the history of Irish healthcare management. It's one or the other.

"These issues here are so large and are frightening so many people across the country."

HSE clinical director Dr Peter McKenna said of the additional 1,500, the figure with false negatives was likely to be lower than 208 as the women were older and less likely to have gone through the screening programme.

Questioned on an information leaflet which says the smear test is "not 100% accurate" he said it should be changed and about 10% false negatives were expected.

- PA


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