Health Minister Simon Harris has pledged that a backlog of approximately 40,000 smear tests will be cleared by mid-September.
His promise came as yet another controversy engulfed the national screening service after it emerged that 800 women were affected by delays in issuing cervical screening results on foot of an IT glitch at the US laboratory processing the tests.
Mr Harris said it is important to note that the overwhelming amount of tests involved were precautionary retests for CervicalCheck and that the original test results are unlikely to change.
The 800 women affected by this latest twist in the ongoing CervicalCheck saga had undergone a second HPV (human papillomavirus) test — used to screen for infections with high-risk types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer — as the first test was conducted outside of the recommended timeframe.
Most of the women required no follow-up. However, there was a “small number of women”, according to Dr Peter McKenna, clinical director of the HSE’s Women and Infants’ Health Programme, whose results differed in the second test. Those whose results recommended follow-up were informed of their results in February, Dr McKenna said. However, the results of the remaining women, circa 800, were delayed.
The issue only came to light after one woman, who underwent screening in December, became concerned about the delay in obtaining results. She contacted the Department of Health on April 3 and finally received her results over the phone on June 26 from a “senior doctor” in CervicalCheck.
When she contacted her GP the next day, he had received the results from Quest Diagnostics the previous week and assumed she had been contacted by CervicalCheck, as is standard.
The woman, identified as “Sharon” on RTÉ, said her GP was not aware that women were not receiving the letters.
“I had been advised the evening before by a CervicalCheck doctor that there was some kind of IT glitch and a decision was made not to send letters to women,” she said.
When she discovered that women were not getting the letters, she said she recognised that “there’s a huge potential issue that women could have negative results and they would be none the wiser”.
She contacted CervicalCheck again and asked them to raise the issue on her behalf.
The Department of Health said it was through follow-up with the HSE in relation to this woman’s representations that it became aware of an IT issue on June 25, and sought clarity. It received a report on July 10.
Mr Harris said it is his understanding that GPs are now receiving results manually.
The HSE has acknowledged there are a number of other women affected — “a very small number of people affected outside of this recheck group” — and that they are “following up on those cases as part of our response”.
Dr Colm Henry, HSE chief clinical officer said they are working with Quest Diagnostics “to add to what is known to date and to fully investigate this issue, with a focus on patient safety and providing information to people affected as soon as it is available”.
He said they will “continue to work on rebuilding the cervical screening service”.