Hundreds of cervical smears go out of date

Rise in expired smears follows controversy over CervicalCheck since Vicky Phelan case

Revelations prompted by the case taken by Vicky Phelan (above) in April have led to a surge in women seeking repeat cervical smears, and growing delays in processing tests. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Revelations prompted by the case taken by Vicky Phelan (above) in April have led to a surge in women seeking repeat cervical smears, and growing delays in processing tests. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

Hundreds of smear tests performed on women in the CervicalCheck screening programme could not be read this year due to delays in processing them, new figures show.

The sharp rise in expired samples is linked to a surge in women seeking repeat smears following controversy over the programme since Vicky Phelan settled her court case last April.

Ms Phelan, a mother-of-two from Co Limerick, settled a High Court action against a US laboratory for €2.5 million over a 2011 smear test, which wrongly gave a negative result for cancer. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and told of the false negative in the smear test only in September 2017.

New figures show that in the aftermath of this controversy, the number of smears performed in CervicalCheck jumped by more than 50 per cent between July 2017 and July 2018.

In July this year, more than 27,200 smears were taken via the programme, compared to 18,700 in the same month in 2017.

The backlog in receiving test results has doubled, going from six-eight weeks to up to 13 weeks in some cases

The Government reached a deal with the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) in May facilitating repeat smears for women concerned about their cervical health.

Due to the rise in patients undergoing smear tests, the backlog in receiving test results has doubled, going from six-eight weeks to up to 13 weeks in some cases.

These delays are likely to persist until the new year, the IMO has told its GP members.

Four-fold rise

The data compiled by CervicalCheck on August 22nd reveals that 110 smear tests taken in July 2018 could not be read, as the samples had expired, a four-fold rise compared to the 27 expired samples recorded in July 2017.

Of the 110 tests, 87 had expired because they were not processed by a laboratory in a timely fashion. The remainder were expired vials from GPs.

CervicalCheck are working towards having a restoration of normal reporting times as soon as is feasible but this is likely to be into the new year

Samples expire when they are not processed within six weeks by the laboratory, while the vials expire in cases where GPs failed to send smear tests to the laboratory quickly enough.

Between April and July this year, 330 samples and vials expired compared to 242 in 2017, representing a rise of 36 per cent.

The HSE said women and GPs are always informed if a screening sample or vial has expired.

Patients must leave a minimum of a three-month gap between smears.

Since July 30th this year, a new system is in place in CervicalCheck whereby all samples are transferred to slides to prevent tests from expiring. The slide might not be read for quite some time, but once the sample is on a slide it cannot expire.

Ensure confidence

The new system aims to dramatically reduce the number of expired samples in the future and to ensure confidence in the programme.

Any repeat smears required by patients over 25 years of age whose original tests cannot be read will be paid for.

Correspondence from the IMO to its members earlier this week states: “CervicalCheck are working towards having a restoration of normal reporting times as soon as is feasible but this is likely to be into the new year.

“The agreement with the State on repeat smears and consultations remains in place until 31 December 2018. The agreed consultation rate is €50 and the repeat smear is paid at the normal rate of €49.10.”