CervicalCheck staff being subjected to abuse, says lead colposcopist

Dr Nóirín Russell calls on women, Department of Health, HSE to support programme

Dr Nóirín Russell is an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Cork University Maternity Hospital and lead colposcopist with Kerry Colposcopy Service at University Hospital Kerry. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Dr Nóirín Russell is an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Cork University Maternity Hospital and lead colposcopist with Kerry Colposcopy Service at University Hospital Kerry. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

 

A consultant has warned that frontline staff with the CervicalCheck service are bearing the brunt of public anger and are being subjected to abuse and abusive language.

Dr Nóirín Russell, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Cork University Maternity Hospital and lead colposcopist with Kerry Colposcopy Service at University Hospital Kerry, said that the last 18 months have been incredibly difficult for women as a result of reporting around the CervicalCheck review.

Following a report in The Examiner which revealed that 15 doctors who oversee the service nationwide are now threatening to leave, Dr Russell told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland that the situation, combined with increased waiting times as a result of out-of-programme smear tests, has resulted in a lot of anger among women.

She said that while she understood the anger and frustration, it had escalated into abuse and abusive language against administrative and nursing staff around the country who run colposcopy clinics.

Prior to April 2018, she said, 98 per cent of women were seen within eight weeks of being referred. However, there are now long waiting lists.

A “perfect storm” had been created where stressed and anxious women were ringing staff who were themselves under pressure.

Dr Russell explained that her team is the diagnostic and treatment arm of the CervicalCheck programme. They look for evidence of abnormal cells if a woman is referred following a smear test.

If abnormal cells are found, then treatment can be delivered, under local anaesthetic, to remove the cells. Although doctors do not read the slides, she said, they are the frontline of the service.

While patients do not have the opportunity to speak to laboratory or cytology staff, they are able to speak to the staff providing the colposcopy service, which means the staff are on the receiving end of the anger and frustration.

“I understand the anger. I understand the frustration but we became recipients of that on the frontline and it’s been really, really damaging for staff.”

Dr Russell said that she and her team believes in CervicalCheck. But they need support from all circles including the media, the HSE and the women who use the service.

“We really want to see this programme flourish. We want to see it supported because we know that screening and HPV vaccinations are the best way to achieve our goal of eradicating cervical cancer in Ireland.

“We need that support as medical professionals. But we also need the support of the media, the politicians, the Department of Health, the HSE and very importantly, we need the women - the 1.2 million women who are eligible for cervical screening - to support the programme.”

CervicalCheck steering committee

Meanwhile cervical cancer patient advocate Vicky Phelan has offered her “full support” to fellow campaigner Lorraine Walsh following her decision to step down from the CervicalCheck steering committee.

Ms Walsh announced her resignation from the committee after a review by the London-based Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) of tests carried out by the screening programme was published on Tuesday.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Prime Time on Tuesday night, Ms Walsh said she “absolutely” does not have confidence in the process and revealed that two of the three cases dealt with by RCOG in which mislabelling occurred involved her own slides and those of Ms Phelan.

While still expressing confidence in the screening process, she called on the Government to fund “individualised, independent assessments” for affected women “so they can get the truth”. Ms Walsh was tested under CervicalCheck but abnormalities were missed, forcing her to have invasive treatment, as a result of which she is unable to have children.

“Out of 1,051 slides [reviewed by RCOG], for two of them to be mine and Vicky Phelan’s, it just erodes confidence further in the entire system,” Ms Walsh said on Tuesday night.

Ms Phelan said on Twitter on Wednesday night that she shares Ms Walsh’s views regarding the review process. “I do not have confidence in the RCOG review process,” she said.

“It is notable that the focus yesterday (Tuesday) by Government was on RCOG’s endorsement of the screening programme rather than on the impact of the findings for those women and families, which was actually the purpose of the review,” she tweeted.

Ms Phelan described Ms Walsh’s decision to step down as “based on an unwavering commitment to the women and families of the 221 Plus CervicalCheck Patient Support Group, a group that Lorraine helped found and which she has dedicated the past 12 months of her life helping women and families caught up in this debacle.”