Harris to set up stakeholder forum in wake of cervical cancer judgment

Minister calls on professionals to continue providing service amid ‘chill effect’ warnings

Ruth Morrissey and her husband Paul sued over her CervicalCheck smear tests. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Ruth Morrissey and her husband Paul sued over her CervicalCheck smear tests. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

The Minister for Health has confirmed he will establish a stakeholder forum with clinicians and State agencies in the wake of a court judgment on cervical cancer screening.

Simon Harris said they would take the “next couple of weeks” to see if there is a need for the State to seek legal clarity in the Ruth Morrissey case. Ms Morrissey, who has terminal cancer, and her husband Paul sued over her CervicalCheck screening programme smear tests.

Legal advice is being sought on the delaration by Mr Justice Kevin Cross in the High Court case earlier this month that screeners must have “absolute confidence” that there are not abnormalities on a slide before giving it the all-clear. Clinicians maintain this is not attainable in screening programmes.

Mr Harris told the Dáil he had received correspondence from the Health Service Executive stating its concerns about the “potential implications arising from the judgment for screening services in particular”. He was also aware of the concerns publicly expressed by some clinicians.

The Minister said “my guidance to all those working in the health service is to continue providing the services we provide to women and men”. He said those services had saved lives since CervicalCheck was introduced.

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly called for the forum with professional bodies, the State Claims Agency, the clinical indemnity scheme to “provide reassurance to clinicians in the interim period while we are awaiting legal views in order that they are safe to continue practising, screening and diagnosing”.

Sinn Féin health spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly said the judgment had had a “chilling effect across the clinical community”.

Ms O’Reilly said that while the legal advice was being sought the Chief Medical Officer might have a role in engaging with the clinical community because “there is a vacuum and those in the medical and clinical community would greatly benefit from some direction”.

The Minister said the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, “had shown leadership and has brought people together at difficult times in the past. I have no doubt he will do so again.”

Mr Harris said that while legal views on the case were awaited, he had been considering the establishment of a forum, with his medical advisers. They were trying to work out the appropriate time but he would endeavour to do it quickly.

He wanted to get a sense of the legal meaning of “absolute confidence” and a proper assessment of its implications for the health service.

“Many well-intentioned people have commented on it, but very few of them are legal experts, and I am not a legal expert.”

But the Minister pointed out that cervical cancer mortality rates had dropped by 7 per cent every year and it was a programme that saved lives.

“For all the imperfections in screening, transparency and the like in recent years, it continues to do so. I ask those providing the services to continue with their work.”