X-ray fiasco - Minister’s position is untenable

Health Minister Mary Harney admitted in a Morning Ireland interview yesterday that the incoming chief executive of Tallaght Hospital, Professor Kevin Conlon, informed her on December 15 last about the problems at the hospital’s radiology department.

Yet, she added, it was only yesterday that she appreciated the extent of the problem.

A consultant radiologist had not viewed 57,921 X-rays taken between 2004 and 2009. She admitted that was “unacceptable medical practice”, but noted it was just 6% of all the X-rays taken during the period. The hospital does between 190,000 and 200,000 a year.

When the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) raised the matter with the hospital on June 24, last year, it was informed that the backlog of unread X-rays was 4,000. Was HIQA misled, or did the bulk of the problems develop in the second half of last year?

The minister is happy that 34,000 scans of the backlog have already been reviewed, though she expressed sadness that the review had exposed two instances in which cancer had not been diagnosed. One patient died last summer, and another patient is receiving treatment that was inexcusably delayed.

If a radiologist fails to report on X-rays in a hospital, the minister contends that nobody can seriously hold her directly responsible. She was informed in mid-December, so there is no excuse for her failure to inform herself properly of the extent of the problem.

Unfortunately, there has been a series of misdiagnoses since Rebecca O’Malley had her cancer misdiagnosed at Cork University Hospital in 2005.

Nine women were found to have been wrongly given the all clear after mammograms at the Midlands Regional Hospital in Portlaoise in 2007, nine other patients with lung cancer received delayed diagnoses after being cleared at Our Lady’s of Lourdes Hospital in Navan the following year.

The Health Service Executive announced yesterday that it is to carry out an investigation into the handling of X-rays at Tallaght. The authorities have known about the problem since December, and it is an outrage that it has taken almost three months to take this action.

Ms Harney suggests her intervention in such matters would be meddling. She sees her responsibility as ensuring that when such matters come to light, that the unacceptable practices stop, that a review takes place, and that patients are informed. In all three instances, she has failed.

As of yesterday there was still a backlog of more than 23,000 X-rays to be examined. Most patients have not been informed, so 57,000 people were being asked to call the hospital to verify their situation.

As the minister ultimately responsible for the Department of Health and Children, she has also failed to issue a statement on the foster care issue.

Having essentially been unwilling to accept her ministerial responsibility in these matters, her position has become untenable. She must go.

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