Surge in patients seeking medical records

Cancer doctors have witnessed an escalation in the number of concerned patients seeking access to their medical files, as the fallout from the CervicalCheck scandal continues.

Séamus O’Reilly, a consultant medical oncologist in the South/Southwest Hospital Group, said colleagues around the country have noted heightened concerns across all cancers, with patients looking to review results, going back years in some cases.

This was creating a significant additional workload, in terms of the administrative logistics of retrieving and photocopying patient files, Prof O’Reilly said.

“In fact one hospital has had to assign an administrative officer to deal totally with just processing patient concerns — so it’s significant,” he said.

“Our hospitals are reporting increased Freedom of Information requests since CervicalCheck broke. It was happening before that, but it’s escalated now.

“The hospital group I work in, the South/Southwest hospital group, people are looking for their medical files.

“And we are also finding patients in the clinic are asking about results from four or five years earlier.”

Prof O’Reilly said he believes public trust is “the biggest casualty” of the CervicalCheck scandal, and that more than a month after the story broke, the problem “is greater than we anticipated”.

“I think the concern that arises from it is the factor of trust between patients and the medical community,” he said. “And I have talked to colleagues around the country and all of them have reported that.

“What I am hearing from colleagues across the country is that there has been an escalation in patient concerns across cancers, and I think clinicians are very aware of it.”

Prof O’Reilly said the CervicalCheck scandal is “the worst health crisis” he has witnessed during two decades working in the Irish health service.

He said there is no option but to legislate for mandatory open disclosure, when mistakes are made.

“There are things you have to legislate for, because otherwise it becomes discretionary, and there are things in medicine, in life, where it’s human nature not to own up,” he said.

Prof O’Reilly is proposing the establishment of Patient Family Advisory Committees within hospitals to promote greater trust and “also allow society see the challenges that are there in delivering healthcare”.

The CervicalCheck scandal broke in April when Limerick woman Vicky Phelan, 43, whose cervical cancer is now terminal, settled a High Court action against the HSE and the US-based Clinical Pathology Laboratories for €2.5m over incorrect smear test results from 2011.

Ms Phelan only learned of the 2011 error through a chance reading of her medical file while waiting for an appointment last year — even though the information had come to light in a 2014 audit.

It subsequently emerged that cancer warning signs had not been detected in the smear tests of 209 women with cervical cancer whose smear history was reviewed following their diagnosis. The women were not told their results had been reviewed.

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