CervicalCheck investigator condemns doctors shunning women in cancer support group

Dr Gabriel Scally said treatment of 221+ group ‘completely unacceptable’ as one affected women complained about being ‘treated like a leper’

The Government-appointed investigator into the CervicalCheck controversy condemned as “completely unacceptable” a refusal by doctors to treat women because they were members of a cancer support group campaigning for greater patient disclosure.

In his final progress report on the controversy, public health specialist Dr Gabriel Scally said he had been told directly by women affected by the controversy that doctors had questioned whether they had any association with the 221+ group before they considered treating them.

“I’ve been treated like a leper,” Dr Scally quotes one affected woman in his final report.

He said it was “very remiss” that this attitude was still prevalent four years after his report condemned how CervicalCheck failed to tell women about an audit of past smear test results.

READ MORE

Some doctors working for CervicalCheck communicated to women and families “the findings of an ill-designed audit in ways that were at times obstructive and callous”, he said.

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall said she was “very concerned” about claims that some doctors were refusing to deal with the 221+ group. She called on the Medical Council, the medical profession’s regulator, and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly to look into them.

“It strikes me as entirely unprofessional and potentially unethical. I want to hear the response of the Medical Council and believe that Minister Donnelly must investigate the matter further – it’s entirely unacceptable,” she said.

In his concluding report setting out whether his recommendations had been implemented, Dr Scally expressed disappointment that the 221+ organisation, co-founded by the late cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan, were not as fully involved in discussions with CervicalCheck.

Lorraine Walsh, a cervical cancer survivor and a 221+ member, told reporters she was shocked to learn some consultants would not treat affected women if they were members of the group.

“It is very sad because a lot of these women need continued care,” she said.

Dr Scally said “very substantial” progress had been made in implementing his 2018 recommendations for improving the screening service but said there was “unfinished business” and “serious work” still required to introduce a policy of mandatory open disclosure in Irish healthcare where doctors are required to tell patients about any harm done during their care.

He said the Government’s proposed Patient Safety Bill would only narrowly introduce open disclosure in cases where patients died and that the legislation “should only be a first step” and “opens the way” to increasing the range of errors covered by mandatory open disclosure.

He added that it “wouldn’t be a bad thing” if the legislation was amended to allow people make complaints to the health service about their clinical care.

Dr Scally said regulators needed “to waken up” to making doctors more accountable on disclosure. He was disappointed the Medical Council had not changed guidelines to say that doctors “must” rather than “should” be open and honest with patients.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil there was need for legislation and “culture change” to bring in “absolute disclosure and candour” in the health service.

He promised that the issue would be dealt with in amendments to the proposed legislation before Christmas, saying there was “an opportunity now, for once and for all, to deal with this”.

The Minister for Health acknowledged Dr Scally’s concerns around mandatory open disclosure and said the Patient Safety Bill provided a legal framework for it.

“Patients and carers have the right to know when mistakes are made, what the consequences are, or may be, and what action has been taken not only to correct mistakes but to prevent similar occurrences in the future,” he said.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald accused the Government of a “lack of urgency” and “foot-dragging” in passing legislation on open disclosure.

“The effect that has had on the women concerned is unforgivable,” she said.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times