Women ‘can have confidence’ in screening

Women can have confidence in the national cervical screening programme, the Department of Health’s chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, has said.

Dr Holohan said he and other clinical experts were very grateful to Vicky Phelan who put the circumstances of her case in the public domain to highlight the issues they now had an opportunity to address.

However, they were aware that there were “substantial issues” of concern and wanted to assure women that they could have confidence in CervicalCheck.

“We want to use the opportunity to say to you clearly that none of the evidence that we have available to us at this point gives us any reason to have any concern about the quality assurance of the performance of the screening programme,” said Dr Holohan.

At a media briefing, Dr Holohan said the screening programme had led to a 7% annual decrease in the incidence of cervical cancer.

We are now having an effect on mortality and stage of presentation — we are picking up people earlier. We have no basis at this point for expressing any lack of confidence in the continuing performance of that screening programme and the impact it is having on population health.

HSE chief clinical officer, Dr Colm Henry, said the integrity of the programme was a key component in reducing the incidence of cervical cancer in the population. However, the current controversy raised issues about communication and open disclosure.

“In my role as chief clinical officer in the HSE certainly one of the key priorities will be ensuring that our clinicians are aware of their obligation to disclose information in the treatment or investigation of patients at all stages,” said Dr Henry.

Director of the national cancer control programme, Dr Jerome Coffey, said they had a very strong programme; they had high-quality assurance standards and they were monitored.

Dr Coffey said they knew there was “tiny, tiny probability” of a woman having a “false negative” smear test but it was much less than one in 100.

They already had a plan to move to HPV testing as the primary screening test in the autumn and it would provide further reassurance that they were making the best technology available Women’s health.

Director of the Irish College of General Practitioners, Dr Mary Short, said the more women engaged in the screening programme, the less likely they were to have any fears.

“If women have abnormal bleeding or bleeding after intercourse then they should go to their doctors,” said Dr Short.

Head of services and advocacy at the Irish Cancer Society, Donal Buggy, said there had been significant “mix messaging” and that needed to stop.

I am concerned about getting clarity for the 3,000 women and their families who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer over the last 10 years and for the women who have engaged in the screening programme and who have had a negative smear,” said Mr Buggy.

“No woman will be reassured by an investigation, a commission or a political conversation this weekend. They need to have clear information.”

Gynaecologist oncologist, Prof Donal Brennan, said the day-to-day working of the programme had been “extremely successful.”

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