Smear tests for MedLab ‘going into storage’ since May 1st until new lab in place

Dáil hears High Court judgment ‘misunderstands screening programmes’

Independent TD and GP Michael Harty raised the MedLab issue during a debate on the CervicalCheck cancer screening programme. File photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Independent TD and GP Michael Harty raised the MedLab issue during a debate on the CervicalCheck cancer screening programme. File photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

Cervical smear tests which normally go for processing at MedLab laboratory, are now being put into storage until new laboratory capacity is in place, the Dáil has heard.

Minister for Health Simon Harris confirmed “they are being stored safely and they will be processed”.

Independent TD and GP Michael Harty raised the issue during a debate on the CervicalCheck cancer screening programme.

He said it was his understanding that since May 1st “MedLab is no longer accepting new smears and they are now being stored pending access to new laboratory capacity which hasn’t been attained yet”.

He said the tests “do not have a lab to go” to.

MedLab normally deals with smear tests from outside the Dublin area. Nationally an estimated 1,000 smears are conducted daily and 250,000 annually.

Dr Harty said: “There are cervical smear takers around the country who are taking smears but there is nowhere for those smears to go. They are being stored pending you sourcing additional capacity. Is that the case?”

The Minister said “it is the case that the finalisation of the commercial arrangements in relation to that additional capacity is ongoing and is nearing completion”.

“This will provide the additional capacity to ensure that our screening programme operates at 100 per cent and can address the backlog.”

Mr Harris said the HSE had sought and sourced extra lab capacity internationally and they were “working to complete commercial arrangement and to complete the quality assurance process”.

Latest available figures showed a backlog in February of 80,000 tests awaiting analysis.

Coombe Hospital

The Minister said the Coombe Hospital in Dublin processed tests within three weeks, while Quest Laboratories provided results in seven to nine weeks.

MedLab was now focusing on its backlog and was using HPV testing and “I expect the backlog will substantially reduce over the summer months”.

Dr Harty, who is chair of the Oireachtas Health Committee, also raised concerns about the High Court ruling in the Ruth Morrissey’s CervicalCheck smear test case.

Dr Harty said “the judgment delivered last week on absolute confidence really misunderstands what screening programmes are all about”.

Cervical screening was not a diagnostic test.

“No screening programme can identify 100 per cent of the abnormalities that are being looked for.”

He said the screening programme was looking for pre-cancerous changes which were on a “huge spectrum of change from zero to invasive cancer”.

“It’s not attainable or available to any screening programme to achieve 100 per cent success right across the world. That is not possible. Medicine is an uncertain business and you’re trying to confirm in an area of uncertainty.”

The Minister said the implications of the judgment should be considered in a “calm and rational manner” and to allow the Attorney General to advise the Government and then decide what action if any was required to seek legal clarity on the impact of the judgment.

Mr Harris also pledged to have legislation through the Oireachtas by the summer recess to deal with claims. The independent assessment panel established to operate an ex-gratia scheme for women affected by non-disclosure of audits held its first meeting on May 1st. Letters were sent on Wednesday to the affected women or their families about participation in the scheme.