Terminally-ill Irishwoman's case being investigated by Dutch hospital

Five years on, one of the leading hospitals in The Netherlands finally agrees to inquiry

Adrienne Cullen: “I trust the integrity of the investigators.” Photograph: Judith Jockel

Adrienne Cullen: “I trust the integrity of the investigators.” Photograph: Judith Jockel

 

A Dutch hospital has announced an investigation into how an Irish woman’s cancer diagnosis lay on her file for two years before she was told.

Adrienne Cullen’s cancer had advanced significantly by the time she and her doctor eventually learned about the positive test. It is now terminal.

In the five years since, she has campaigned for Utrecht University Hospital to conduct an inquiry into how the results were misplaced.

Ms Cullen’s case has been the subject of intense public interest in the Netherlands since 2015, when it was first highlighted in a Dutch newspaper.

In 2011 Ms Cullen, a journalist, visited a gynaecologist at University Medical Centre Utrecht (UMCU), one of the Netherland’s largest hospitals, where a biopsy was taken. Her gynaecologist then sent this biopsy to the UMCU laboratory.

It was only in 2013, two years later, that the gynaecologist was informed the sample showed the early stages of cervical cancer. The results had been uncovered during a review of old tests.

It is not clear why the results were missed back in 2011, although some hospital officials have suggested the transfer of hospital records from paper to digital formats may have played a role.

By this stage Ms Cullen’s cancer had advanced significantly. No one at the hospital, apart from the gynaecologist involved, apologised for the mistake at the time.

Later, an independent medical adviser examined Ms Cullen’s case and determined: “Curative treatment is no longer possible”.

The hospital board offered a settlement of about €500,000 on the condition that Ms Cullen stay silent about what happened to her, a common provision of medical negligence settlements in the Netherlands.

Settlement of €545,000

She and her husband, Peter Cluskey fought this gagging order and eventually the hospital agreed to drop it.

The hospital settled with Ms Cullen and her husband, Peter Cluskey for €545,000, the highest medical negligence award in the country.

Now, following extensive lobbying from Ms Cullen, UMCU has agreed to open an inquiry into how her diagnosis was missed for two years. She has been told it will take about four months but this may be extended.

“I trust the integrity of the investigators. And I trust that they will also look at why it has taken five years to do this investigation,” said Ms Cullen.

She said she would prefer the investigation was being conducted by an external body which could work with UMCU. But no such agency exists in the Netherlands.

“It’s only because we pushed so hard that anybody in my position is getting an investigation now as a matter of course when they are seriously damaged,” she said.

UMCU did not return requests for comment this week.

Adrienne Cullen before her lecture in April at Universitair Medisch Centrum Utrecht talking to a press manager. Photograph: Maarten Hartman
Adrienne Cullen before her lecture in April at Universitair Medisch Centrum Utrecht talking to a press manager. Photograph: Maarten Hartman

In April this year, Ms Cullen gave a public lecture attended by 300 people, including the head of the country's health inspectorate, Prof. Ronnie van Diemen; the CEO of UMC Utrecht, Professor Margriet Schneider, members of the executive and supervisory boards of UMCU along with board members and executives from the other seven Dutch university hospitals, division heads from within UMCU and from other hospitals, representatives of the country's largest patient federations, doctors, nurses, patients, and members of the public, along with the Irish Ambassador to the Netherlands Kevin Kelly. There, she made it clear that the hospital had ignored and mistreated her.

The hospital has pledged to hold an Adrienne Cullen-lecture every year about issues relating to open disclosure and transparency.

* This article has been amended to give extra detail on the attendence at a lecture in The Netherlands last April