HSE seeks labs to carry out 130,000 cervical screening tests

Massive backlog means women have to wait up to 27 weeks for results

The backlog arises from a decision by Minister for Health Simon Harris last year to offer free out-of-cycle tests to women in the wake of the controversy over CervicalCheck. Photograph: Tom Honan / The Irish Times

The backlog arises from a decision by Minister for Health Simon Harris last year to offer free out-of-cycle tests to women in the wake of the controversy over CervicalCheck. Photograph: Tom Honan / The Irish Times

 

The Health Service Executive is seeking laboratories to carry out up to 130,000 cervical cancer screening tests this year as part of efforts to deal with a massive backlog.

With women now having to wait up to 27 weeks for test results under the CervicalCheck programme, the HSE has advertised for public or private labs to bolster existing services.

HSE officials last week said results were being awaited for some 78,000 cervical smear slides, and testing labs were taking an average of 93 days to report on smears.

Officials maintain the risk to women’s health is slight but this has not allayed concern among some of those experiencing delays.

The backlog arises from a decision by Minister for Health Simon Harris last year to offer free out-of-cycle tests to women in the wake of the controversy over CervicalCheck. This saw the system overloaded with an additional 90,000 tests last year.

The problem is compounded by a shortage of lab resources internationally as many facilities reorient their services to the provision of HPV testing for cervical cancer. HPV testing is more accurate than the tradition Pap or smear test and is being adopted by many countries.

However, its introduction in Ireland is being delayed by the backlog of existing tests, which must be cleared before the switch is made to HPV testing.

Now the HSE has sought tenders from public or private companies to support CervicalCheck by providing liquid-based cytology services.

‘Good reason’

Liquid cytology involved the taking of a small sample of cells from the cervix using a small brush. The cells are placed in a liquid preservative and, in the lab, transferred on to a slide for examination. The fluid can also be tested for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).

According to the notice the Government’s E-tenders website, the HSE is aware that many countries are under pressure for cytology testing due to the imminent arrival of HPV screening.

“We are also aware that as some countries and providers move to HPV primary screening that cytology resource may become available.”

Mr Harris again defended his decision to offer the free out-of-cycle smears at the weekend.

“The decision was made for good reason, in consultation with my officials and the chief medical officer,” he said. “There’s a bit of serious revisionism. Everyone is talking about it from higher terrain, thankfully.”