Simon Harris declined meetings with cervical test-screening lab

Laboratory warned repeat free cervical smear offer would overload screening system

Minister for Health Simon Harris was warned that increased pressure on labs was putting the future of the cervical screening system “in jeopardy”.

Minister for Health Simon Harris was warned that increased pressure on labs was putting the future of the cervical screening system “in jeopardy”.

 

Minister for Health Simon Harris twice turned down appeals from executives from one of the main cervical cancer-screening laboratories last year to meet in relation to pressures facing the CervicalCheck system.

Senior figures from MedLab sought a meeting with the Minister last June over testing delays facing the national screening programme, according to correspondence.

Meanwhile, the company sought a meeting in December about concerns it had about a review of 1,800 past CervicalCheck smear tests to be carried out by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG)in London.

The screening programme has faced increased demand. In the past, it took four to six weeks for a smear-test result, but currently results are taking an average of 22 weeks or longer.

It emerged on Thursday that up to 6,000 women will have to retake HPV tests, as the samples were tested outside of recommended time frames, health officials said.

Since 2015 if a smear test showed low-grade abnormalities a woman was referred for a HPV test. The approximately 6,000 cases related to tests returned as negative.

However, the Health Service Executive is to write to these women by the end of next week, advising them to retake a HPV test.

The national screening programme was informed late last November by Quest Laboratories that the delays in delivering test results had “been carried out outside of the manufacturer’s recommended time frame,” a HSE spokeswoman said.

The laboratory had dated samples from the day they had been received, not when the samples had been taken. However, health officials stressed the repeat tests were precautionary, and the new samples would be prioritised for testing.

Guarantee

At the height of the CervicalCheck scandal last spring the Government guaranteed that all affected women could avail of a free repeat smear test.

Last June, Dr Colin Goldschmidt, chief executive of Sonic Healthcare, warned Mr Harris that the resulting pressure on labs was putting the future of the screening system “in jeopardy”.

Sonic Healthcare is the Australian parent company of Dublin-based MedLab Pathology (MLP), contracted to process close to half of the total smear tests.

The free smear guarantee “led directly to a significant increase in the volume of smear test samples” being sent to MedLab, Dr Goldschmidt said.

“Prior to the recent crisis, approximately 4,000 samples would be within acceptable limits of MLP’s maximum screening capacity,” he said. In June the lab was dealing with 20,000 test slides, he said.

The correspondence was released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act. “Women must be prioritised and an urgent solution must be put in place,” Dr Goldschmidt told Mr Harris, before offering to fly to Dublin to meet the Minister.

Mr Harris did not meet Dr Goldschmidt at the time, and doing so would have been “wholly inappropriate” while Dr Gabriel Scally’s report into the CervicalCheck controversy was ongoing, a spokeswoman for Mr Harris said.

On December 14th, MedLab officials sent another letter to the Minister seeking a meeting, which also did not take place. The letter related to concerns MedLab had in relation to a review of 1,800 past CervicalCheck smear tests, to be carried out by RCOG.

In relation to the December meeting request, a spokeswoman for Mr Harris said the Minister’s position was that laboratory officials should be referred to the “appropriate decision-makers” overseeing the screening programme in the HSE.