Medical Council concerned over ‘inaccurate information’ on CervicalCheck

The ‘good news story’ surrounding the programme ‘has been somewhat lost’

Since the controversy broke more than 57,000 women have had new smear tests conducted resulting in the build-up of a large backlog. Photograph: Rafe Swan/Cultura/Getty

The Medical Council has expressed concern at “the levels of inaccurate information” in the public domain as a result of problems in the operation of the national cervical cancer screening programme.

In its first public intervention on the controversy, the council - through its president Dr Rita Doyle - said “the CervicalCheck programme has decreased the mortality rate by 7 per cent year on year since its inception, thus reducing the number of women who die from cervical cancer. This in itself is a good news story but has been somewhat lost in the varying issues that have emerged.

“Women should be encouraged to take part in the screening process in the full knowledge that it is a screening test and not a diagnostic one.

She said: “The Medical Council, in its role in protecting patients and supporting doctors, is very concerned at some of the inaccurate information that is in the public domain following the recent difficulties discovered with Cervical Check.


“The fact is cancer screening saves lives every week however screening is not a diagnostic exercise and there is an acceptable norm of false negative and indeed false positive results.”

The council, which regulates medical doctors in the Republic of Ireland, “eagerly awaits the publication of the Scally report” which was commissioned by the Government into the affair, she added.

She was commenting as the HSE confirmed that some women who were retested for signs of cancer following the emergence of the CervicalCheck controversy may have to go through the procedure again due to their samples going out of date.

After the controversy broke in April following Vicky Phelan’s High Court case, the HSE offered free additional smear tests to women as a means of providing reassurance.

Backlog of samples

Since then more than 57,000 women have had new smear tests conducted resulting in the build-up of a large backlog of samples to be examined. This is in addition to the tests conducted as part of the normal CervicalCheck testing cycle.

Samples expire after six weeks meaning smear tests which have not been examined within that timeframe will have to be retaken.

On Monday a HSE spokeswoman said, “in a small number of cases, certain smears may have to be retaken.

“This can occur where the smear is not sufficient for reading, the smear has expired for various reasons or the slide is damaged.”

She said: “In the past number of months, there has been a noticeable increase in the numbers of smears that contracted laboratories have to read. This is, for the most part, due to women seeking additional smear tests since the CervicalCheck controversy arose.”

The HSE said “all efforts are being taken” to avoid samples going out of date “as we are conscious that this requires the woman to have a further smear taken”. It said it is continuing to closely monitor the situation with the laboratories.

The pressure on laboratories to test samples is now beginning to ease after the surge in new tests which resulted from the scandal and from a general increase in women getting checked for cervical cancer, the Department of Health said.

Impact on public confidence

A spokeswoman for the department said laboratories have brought on additional staff and allowed for extra overtime, as well as “tapping into their wider organisation for assistance.”

“The labs are reporting to the HSE CervicalCheck team on a weekly basis, providing status updates on the number of samples received, processing times etc.

“It is encouraging that so many women continue to avail of this very important screening service,” she added.

The additional staff and overtime for the laboratories is being funded by the Government who also pay GPs €100 for each smear test they conduct.

Concerns about the large backlog were first raised with the department by the National Association of GPs which said its members were being told by screening laboratories that some samples have already expired before they could be examined.

The delays could have a further negative impact on public confidence in screening programmes, which include BreastCheck and BowelScreen, according to Dr Doyle.

The delays are “unacceptable to both patients and doctors,” she said.

“As a General Practitioner of over 30 years, I strongly encourage the public to continue to attend for screening appointments when invited to do so,” Dr Doyle continued.

As well awaiting the Scally report, the council has “written to the interim director general of the HSE requesting information from any HSE reports commissioned into the matter of relevance to the Medical Councils remit,” Dr Doyle said.

“If there are issues around professional performance or conduct relating to individual doctors they will be investigated and dealt with by the Medical Council in a fair manner according to our procedures and regulatory powers.”

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times