Government seeks to reassure women over BreastCheck’s future

Programme has saved lives, is performing well and will continue to do so, says Coveney

Fears have been expressed that spiralling legal costs could lead to the breast cancer screening programme being closed down. File photograph: Getty Images

Fears have been expressed that spiralling legal costs could lead to the breast cancer screening programme being closed down. File photograph: Getty Images

 

The BreastCheck cancer screening programme is doing its job and has helped to save the lives of women in the State, Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said.

Mr Coveney was speaking as the Government moved to reassure women about the programme in wake of fears that legal costs arising from potential litigation could lead to it being closed down.

He told the Dáil that “BreastCheck as far as we can see is performing well and has saved lives and will continue to do so with the reviews that are taking place”.

The Irish Times reported on Thursday that the national clinical director of BreastCheck, Prof Ann O’Doherty, had said her unit at St Vincent’s University Hospital in Dublin had received a surge of solicitors’ letters following the controversy over cervical cancer screening.

She said in her 30-year career in breast cancer screening she would have dealt with one case or less per year involving solicitors. But her unit had received 15 solicitors’ letters in the last fortnight.

Prof O’Doherty expressed fears that spiralling legal costs could lead to the breast cancer screening programme being closed down.

Solicitor Cian O’Carroll, who represented Vicky Phelan in her recent case over a delayed cervical cancer diagnosis, maintained that the 15 letters mentioned by Prof O’Doherty were not legal threats, but correspondence from women seeking files.

Mr Coveney said “BreastCheck is a screening programme that is extremely valuable and needs to be protected” and improved if necessary. He said that in terms of the legal issues, the Taoiseach had set up a group to look at common law in relation to medical litigation.

The Health Service Executive said BreastCheck was moving to a policy of open disclosure next year. The executive had informed the Government the British National Health Service had moved formally to that position last year and Mr Coveney said the State would learn from that.

BreastCheck said on Thursday that while mammography was the best screening test available for detection of breast cancer, like all other screening tests, it was not diagnostic and not 100 per cent effective.

“Although mammograms will detect most cases of breast cancer, there will always be cases where cancer is not detected. Interval cancers, or cancers detected after a woman has had a negative mammogram and before her next mammogram is due, are inherent features of population-based screening programmes,” it said.

The interval cancer rate of BreastCheck met international standards, with approximately 9.6 cancer cases per 10,000 women screened.

Meanwhile, the Irish Cancer Society said that women diagnosed with breast cancer between screenings should be offered reviews of mammograms to discover if there was an error in a previous result. The charity said these women should be “communicated with openly and given any support they need”.

The society also said Minister for Health Simon Harris must ensure any legal claims could be dealt with through mediation so patients, some of whom may be ill, did not have to go to court.

Liz Yeates, chief executive of the Marie Keating Foundation, said while BreastCheck is one of the most highly accredited screening services, like any screening service it is not a diagnostic service and will not pick up 100 per cent of breast cancers.

“The primary aim of breast screening is to pick up pre-cancerous cells but not all breast cancers will be found by mammogram,” she said.