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Expert leading CervicalCheck inquiry concerned about 'fevered atmosphere'

Meanwhile, Health Minister Simon Harris has received government approval for the drafting of a Bill to establish an independent board for the HSE.

THE EXPERT OVERSEEING the inquiry into the CervicalCheck controversy has expressed concern about the “fevered atmosphere” surrounding the issue.

Dr Gabriel Scally last night wrote to officials at the Department of Health stating his concern “that the current fevered atmosphere is posing some problems”, documents released this evening show.

“It is apparent to me that some key individuals and organisations are being distracted by the necessity of preparing to appear before committees and answer questions on very specific aspects of this substantial system failure that has led to such genuine concern and heartbreak.

“The correct way forward to analyse a system failure is by detailed and systematic analysis of that failure. To do that to any satisfactory extent I need to be able to be able to gain the full attention and cooperation of the key individuals and their organisations,” Scally wrote.

email2 The email from Dr Gabriel Scally Source: Department of Health

Meanwhile, Health Minister Simon Harris today received government approval for the drafting of a Bill to establish an independent board for the HSE. The previous board was abolished in 2011.

“The events of the past few weeks have once again made clear, there is an urgent need to restore public confidence in the HSE through a series of actions to strengthen the management, governance and accountability of the organisation. A key component of this is the establishment of a Board for the HSE.

The current HSE structure does not provide an adequate governance arrangement for the HSE, as I outlined to the Sláintecare committee, and as has been reflected in the report…

“I firmly believe that the appointment of a strong Board will help ensure robust governance of the HSE. We will work to have the Bill published as soon as possible. I look forward to working with members of the Oireachtas in bringing the Bill through the Houses this year,” Harris said.

Informing women 

Last night the HSE confirmed that 18 women affected by the controversy have died. The previous figure was 17 women. The organisation said 203 of the 209 women (or their families) whose smear test results could have been incorrect have now been contacted.

The documents released today show that the Department of Health was aware of CervicalCheck’s stance of not informing some women of the outcomes of reviews into their cases.

A memo sent in October 2016 shows that Tony Holohan, the Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health, was told that legal proceedings had been taken by one of the women affected by the audit.

The documents show that clinicians were told to use their judgement in “selected cases where it is clear that discussion of the outcomes of the review could do more harm than good”.

Memos released to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) last week showed that HSE management was warned in 2016 that there could be negative media coverage an audit into CervicalCheck, the national cervical cancer screening programme.

A briefing note from July 2016 said “all international screening programmes will have encountered a media headline that ‘screening did not diagnose my cancer’”. It said that the CervicalCheck programme was prepared for such media coverage.

The CervicalCheck scandal came into the public eye last month when Vicky Phelan, whose cervical cancer is now terminal, settled a High Court action against the HSE and Clinical Pathology Laboratories (CPL) for €2.5 million over incorrect smear test results from 2011.

Harris has launched an inquiry into the controversy, and the HSE’s Director General Tony O’Brien stepped down last week.

Public Accounts Committee

At a special meeting in Leinster House at 5pm tomorrow, the PAC will hear evidence from Vicky Phelan and Stephen Teap, whose wife was one of the 18 women who have died.

Sean Fleming, chair of the PAC, said it is important that the committees hears directly from victims.

The understandable anxiety that the issues first exposed last month by Vicky Phelan has now turned to public anger and that is why we need answers and accountability now as we cannot wait for a commission of inquiry that may take a considerable time to conclude its work: All our work will be available to Dr Scally and to the inquiry.

“We need answers as to the state of knowledge of this issue at the senior levels in the Department and the HSE. The public officials will also get an opportunity to highlight the need for the continuation of the screening programme.

“They will also get an opportunity to report progress on the changes that have been implemented to inform all those women and the families of those women who have died about the outcome of the cervical screening audit,” Fleming said.

More than 16,500 calls have been answered by the HSE’s CervicalCheck freephone helpline since 28 April.

If you’re concerned about the results of your smear test, you can contact the helpline as follows:

  • From Ireland: 1800 45 45 55
  • From outside Ireland: +353 21 4217612

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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