HSE communications chief learned of smear-test audit from RTÉ
Paul Connors says that CervicalCheck’s reputation will be difficult to rebuild
Vicky Phelan: when the story broke she had settled her High Court action against the American laboratory which misread her abnormal 2011 smear test, the “person who knew most about CervicalCheck wasn’t in the country” – ie the programme’s former clinical director, Dr Gráinne Flannelly. Photograph: Collins Courts
The first the Health Service Executive’s national director of communications heard about an audit of cervical smear tests and the subsequent failure to inform women about their results, was last Thursday when contacted by RTÉ news.
Paul Connors, addressing a conference on maternity services, the media and the law on Thursday said he had “heard of the Vicky Phelan case” but not about that information about their smear tests had also been kept from hundreds of other women.
He said the HSE was “in the middle of a very difficult period”, that the reputation of the national cervical cancer screening programme CervicalCheck had suffered “a significant blow [that would be] difficult to rebuild”.
Ms Phelan, a Limerick mother of two, was incorrectly told in 2011 her smear test was normal. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and only told her 2011 smear had been part of a wider audit and it had been a “false negative” in September 2017.
Mr Connors said when the story broke last Wednesday, that Ms Phelan, whose cancer is terminal, had settled her High Court action against the American laboratory which misread her abnormal 2011 smear test for €2.5 million, the “person who knew most about CervicalCheck wasn’t in the country” – ie the programme’s former clinical director, Dr Gráinne Flannelly.
It emerged the following day more than 200 women diagnosed with cervical cancer, whose earlier smears were also rechecked, were not told they could and should have received earlier intervention than they actually did.
Dr Flannelly did an interview by Skype with RTÉ news on Thursday evening, and was on Morning Ireland in the RTÉ radio studio on Friday morning. She told the programme: “My sense is that all the patients have been told . . . I can’t tell you for sure that the 206 patients are aware.”
Mr Connors said on Thursday: “It was very difficult to sort through the numbers which were mind-numbingly intricate. If we had had an extra 24 hours to work through the numbers . . . It took the guts of a day to actually understand what we were talking about and then we were under pressure to go out and explain.
“On the one hand we had to understand the numbers and on the other side we had to be visible. We had to make a decision about coming out and being visible. I would have waited another five hours [to better understand the numbers].”
He said he was “sincerely sorry for the suffering and distress [caused to women]. It should never have happened.” He hoped the reputation of CervicalCheck could be restored.