200 women await action on abnormal smear tests

APPROXIMATELY 200 women with abnormal smear test results, of which 80 are deemed clinically urgent, are waiting up to four months for follow-up examinations at Kerry General Hospital.

The backlog of women awaiting colposcopies is so great that the hospital has requested help from the National Treatment Purchase Fund to tackle the waiting list, an exceptional development given the fund does not normally carry out diagnostic procedures.

Yesterday, consultant obstetrician/gynaecologist Dr Mary McCaffrey, head of the hospital’s colposcopy department, blamed the waiting list on staffing shortages made worse by the Government embargo on recruitment to the public service. She also blamed a lack of physical space.

“The number of patients being referred for colposcopies has grown substantially due to the volume of smears being done in our catchment area. Unfortunately, the staffing and resources needed to deal with the increase have not been put in place.”

According to best practice, any woman with abnormal smear test results should be seen within eight weeks, said Dr McCaffrey. The current waiting time at Kerry General Hospital for a colposcopy — a visual examination of the cervix and vagina using a lighted magnifying instrument (colposcope) to assess the severity of a problem — is three to four months.

In an effort to reassure women on the waiting list, Dr McCaffrey said: “I understand that women on a waiting list would be worried, but all I can say is they do not go from an abnormal smear to cancer overnight.”

Dr McCaffrey said she had asked management at the hospital to refer all urgent cases to the fund, and they had agreed. A statement from the Health Service Executive (HSE) confirmed hospital management had made an agreement with the fund to treat the women, 80 of whom were deemed “clinically urgent”. “This offer will be made to patients within the next few weeks and it is hoped this initiative will clear the current backlog,” the statement said. It said a “statement of need” for a Women’s Health Centre at Kerry General Hospital has been prepared for the National Hospitals Office to include colposcopy facilities.

Dr McCaffrey, president of the Irish Hospital Consultant’s Association, said she did not know how the HSE and the Government expected to roll out a national cervical screening programme when existing services are struggling to cope, and without putting additional staff and clinical support services in place.

The Government and the HSE has promised the Irish Cervical Screening Programme, available only in counties Limerick, Clare and Tipperary North, will be rolled out nationally by 2008.

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