Nurses’ organisation critical of HSE over cervical smear testing

INMO says nurses should have been given accurate information to reassure women

The Health Service Executive should have contacted nurses involved in cervical smear tests in advance of the latest controversy so they could reassure concerned patients, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has said.

On the first day of the INMO’s annual delegate conference in Cork, general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha said its office had been contacted by many members working as practice nurses and nurses involved in taking cervical smears seeking guidance as to what they should do to reassure women anxious that their test results may not be correct.

The controversy came to light after terminally-ill Limerick woman Vicky Phelan (43) took legal action when it emerged she had not been told for three years that a previous screen had failed to detect cancer warning signs. It has now emerged 17 women given test incorrect results have since died.

The INMO had written to the HSE on Tuesday on behalf of these nurses seeking guidelines on how they should respond to women contacting them and the HSE had responded by saying that it would send out guidelines on Wednesday.


Asked how the INMO learned about the controversy over the smear tests, Ms Ní Sheaghdha said it was not contacted by the HSE. When the organisation learned of the issue through the media, it contacted the HSE to seek clarification.

“The contact has come from us – are we satisfied? No, we are not satisfied, we would prefer obviously if the people in the front line, who are trying to reassure very worried women, were given the correct and accurate information in advance of them interacting with these women.”


Asked if the INMO had any views on whether HSE director-general Tony O'Brien and Dr Jerome Coffey, head of the National Cancer Control Programme, should resign, Ms Ní Sheaghdha said the most important thing for her members was that women were reassured about the service.

She said the most important thing for the INMO and its members, who encourage women to come for what are often intimate and uncomfortable tests, was that women were not in any way discouraged from attending screening programmes for cervical cancer.

“Our members put women at their ease and they encourage people to return and have repeat tests – we do not want that in any way negatively affected as a result of this [controversy] – whether people resign or should resign, that’s secondary as far as we are concerned,” she said.

“There is, as I understand, a statutory inquiry and if it is found those people have something to answer, normally in any case such as that, we would be saying that is a matter for the employer and that it is a matter that should be dealt with at that point.”

The INMO represents about 1,500 nurses working in GP practices around the country, many of whom conduct smear tests as well as nurses working in Well Woman Clinics and midwives who are also involved in dealing with women in some cervical smears cases, she said.

INMO president Martina Harkin-Kelly said she wanted to express solidarity with Ms Phelan and her family and all the other women caught up in the cervical smear test controversy and she moved to reassure people that INMO members would continue to show compassion to such women.

Ms Ní Sheaghdha and Ms Harkin-Kelly were speaking in Cork on the first day of the INMO's annual delegate conference where some 350 delegates will spend Thursday debating more than 50 motions before being addressed on Friday by Minister for Health Simon Harris.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times