HSE had ‘no interest’ in developing Irish cytology screening

Scientist association says HSE was warned of overseas smear testing dangers 10 years ago

Irish laboratories were not able to bid for tenders because 60 laboratory scientists had been deployed to other work, the Medical Laboratory Scientists’ Association will tell the Oireachtas health committee, chaired by Independent TD Michael Harty. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Irish laboratories were not able to bid for tenders because 60 laboratory scientists had been deployed to other work, the Medical Laboratory Scientists’ Association will tell the Oireachtas health committee, chaired by Independent TD Michael Harty. Photograph: Eamon Ward

 

Medical laboratory scientists will today tell TDs that they warned the Department of Health and the Health Service Executive a decade ago that foreign-based cervical smear testing posed risks for patients.

However, the Medical Laboratory Scientists’ Association (MLSA) said both then had no interest in developing Irish testing and, instead, wanted to award the contract aboard.

Irish laboratories were not able to bid for later tenders because 60 laboratory scientists had been deployed to other work, the association will tell the Oireachtas health committee, chaired by Independent TD Michael Harty.

In an opening statement, the MLSA said cervical cancer screening has saved lives, but “it is now clear that it did not operate to necessary standards culminating in the serious failings” in CervicalCheck.

Cervical screening was first introduced in Ireland in the 1960s. By the mid-1980s, 15 private laboratories carried out up to 145,000 smears a year, though delays were common.

Review in 2004

The State was advised to set up a screening programme in 1996, based in Limerick. In a 2004 review, UK expert Dr Euphemia McGoogan recommended a countrywide service.

Four regional screening centres backed by primary and colposcopy care were needed, along with a single standard test and faster processing of cervical smears.

Faced with continuing delays, the HSE decided in June 2006 to have tests reviewed abroad for two years, with an option to extend for two years. The contract was not sent out for tender because the HSE cited “urgent medical need”.

US firm Quest Diagnostics won the contract. However, Irish cytology laboratories had been “working assiduously” to win accreditation to provide smear test in Ireland.

“Some laboratories had already achieved accreditation,” said the MLSA, which complained that HSE-run laboratories were struggling because of a ban on hiring new staff.

After Quest Diagnostics won a longer contract in 2008, the association warned “the short-term decision” would lead to a “disconnect” between medical treatment in Ireland and foreign-based testing.

Concern was also expressed about the loss of the skills, so “the majority of Irish cytology laboratories were not able to tender for subsequent National Cancer Screening Service contracts after 2010”.

‘No interest’

The Department of Health and the HSE later showed “no interest” in developing Irish cytology screening, preferring “to close existing screening services in Ireland and redeploy staff to other laboratory disciplines”.

Testing should now return to Irish laboratories, said the MLSA, adding that the recent controversy has impacted greatly on all staff who “diligently” delivered cervical screening over the last decade.

Separately the Academy of Clinicial Science and Laboratory Medicine said the decision to our source the analysis of cervical smear tests to the United States in 2008 was “shortsighted”.

Academy president Dr Irene Regan told the Oireachtas health committee that the Irish accredited laboratories that tendered for the cervical screening service in 2007/2008, were informed that they had scored highly in all areas (quality and turn-around times) except cost.

She said othe Academy has recommended that when the planned new HPV screening system was introduced, “the entire cervical screening service be re-established in Ireland to ensure an entirely integrated service for HPV, Cytology, Colposcopy and Histopathology for the women of Ireland in the one health system, ensuring continuity of care, and clinical governance”.

“The Academy advises that this laboratory service be configured, led and managed by consultant medical scientists and pathologists, a service configuration that is now emerging as standard practice in the UK.”