Women refused cervical audit results in 2016

By Elaine Loughlin, Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, and Daniel McConnell

CervicalCheck refused to provide information to two concerned women who directly contacted the service in 2016, it has been revealed.

The revelation is contained in a tranche of newly released documents that also show the Department of Health and HSE officials held regular meetings over the CervicalCheck scandal throughout 2016.

Serious questions have now been raised as to why the minister of health was not informed of the controversy if senior officials in his department were discussing the audits on a regular basis.

It comes as terminally-ill Vicky Phelan is to speak to the Dáil Public Accounts Committee today along with Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene died last year after receiving an incorrect cervical cancer screening which she was not told about.

Separately, senior officials from the HSE, the Department of Health, and CervicalCheck, will be grilled over who knew what and when they found out as they come before the Oireachtas Health Committee today.

In a letter to Department of Health chief medical officer Tony Holohan in October 2016, CervicalCheck admitted it did not give details of audits to two women diagnosed with cervical cancer who had asked for their records.

“Two women have directly enquired informally about their diagnosis and have been informed of the cancer audit process and that any review findings will be communicated to their consultant doctors,” the memo read.

Mr Holohan also heard doctors were being told to “use their judgement” when deciding whether to inform women their initial smear test results were wrong.

“In cases where the woman has died, simply ensure the result is recorded in the woman’s notes,” the memo added.

PAC vice-chairman Alan Kelly last night questioned the medical ethics of adding to a patient’s records after their death and not informing the next of kin.

This was echoed by the chairman of the Health Committee, Michael Harty, who is a Clare TD and GP.

“From a data protection point of view, there may be issues around passing information to the next of kin. From an ethical point of view, the opposite would be the case. From an ethical point of view they have a right to know,” he said.

“Open disclosure is a central issue in this, there was a need for open disclosure.”

Dr Harty added that he would quizzing officials today on why information was not delivered up the chain of command to the minister for health.

“The two fundamental issues is first why was this information not passed up the line, why was it not recognised that this was a serious issue?” he asked.

He said the second issue relates to whether there were sufficient quality assurances around the laboratories that were used to test smear samples.

Mr Kelly also said it seemed “bizarre” that the health minister would not be informed of the audit given the intense levels of communications between the department and HSE on the controversy.

“It makes it quite clear that the department were discussing the issue and so had full knowledge and so it’s bizarre that it was also told to the minister of his people,” he said.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who was health minister when the first of the memos were sent in 2016, said the documents showed that “none of this was escalated beyond the office of the CMO and the office of acute hospital services”.

He told the Dáil: “The memos and documents confirm that no concerns were raised about patient safety, the efficacy and accuracy of the programme or the accuracy of any particular laboratories.”

Mr Varadkar added that he could not comprehend the “absence of any concern or care” by CervicalCheck to the women who were kept in the dark over smear screening audits.

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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