CervicalCheck has been aware for years there were issues with transfer of data from the National Cancer Registry (NCR) — a situation that led to a serious underestimation of the number of women caught up in the cervical cancer screening scandal.
HSE boss Tony O’Brien told the Oireachtas health committee yesterday it was “not the minister’s fault” that, a week after the scandal broke, Health Minister Simon Harris had to come back to the Dáil with substantially different figures on the number of women diagnosed with cancer since 2008.
“The issue here was that the information given was that the audit related to the totality of cases when it didn’t. The minister was briefed incorrectly and it’s a very serious issue and it’s not the minister’s fault,” Mr O’Brien said.
Asked by Labour health spokesman Alan Kelly how long CervicalCheck knew it didn’t have the totality of cases from the NCR, Mr O’Brien said: “I think they always knew.”
Failure to reconcile CervicalCheck and NCR data meant the HSE initially said, on April 26, that 1,482 cases of cervical cancer had been diagnosed since its screening programme began in 2008. Days later, it emerged it was double that number.
The HSE has yet to quantify the number of women in the second cohort who have had their screening history audited. An audit of the screening history of the first cohort found 162 women were not told earlier smears were incorrectly read and 175 had care delayed because of false negatives. Seventeen women have died.
Mr O’Brien said it was “clear there was knowledge in CervicalCheck that it was not receiving NCR data”.
He said the issue emerged when “it became evident to the serious incident management team that the number of cases audited by the screening programme varied from the number of cases of cervical cancer reported to the NCR over the same period.
“The [team] immediately took action, escalating this matter to the director general.”
He said this would result in the NCR “being mandated to share its data with the programme”, the lists being reconciled, and an “immediate audit of these remaining cases being undertaken”.
He said the data protection issue “had been overcome”.
Mr Kelly said: “How we came to a situation where the screening programme didn’t get all the data, and had gone on for years and years, is bizarre and we need to establish the facts.”
The Irish Examiner subsequently asked the HSE why it put the figure of 1,482 into the public domain if it knew it didn’t have the full data. The HSE said the figure was the totality of cases notified to it. It said these cases had not been notified through the NCR. Asked to clarify who did notify these cases to CervicalCheck, the HSE said “all these matters will be subject to the scoping inquiry”.
That inquiry is part of the Government response to the CervicalCheck scandal which emerged from the court case of Vicky Phelan. Ms Phelan was given incorrect smear test results and developed terminal cancer.
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