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'Let responsibility lie where it lies': What exactly is the CervicalCheck inquiry looking at?

The results of the investigation are due by the end of June.

Image: Sam Boal

DR GABRIEL SCALLY has begun his examination of the CervicalCheck screening programme and his report is due at the end of June.

But what exactly is the prominent UK doctor investigating?

The scandal erupted late last month after Vicky Phelan was awarded €2.5 million by the HSE over incorrect smear tests from 2011.

Since then it has emerged that more than 200 women received false negative tests and went on to develop cervical cancer. The majority of the women were not told about the screening errors until this controversy erupted. Seventeen of those women have since died.

Speaking yesterday Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton said Dr Scally and his team are trying to determine exactly what went wrong before attributing responsibility.

“We want to get to the truth of what has happened here and let responsibility lie where it lies,” he said.

Who is Dr Gabriel Scally?

Dr Scally is the President of the Epidemiology and Public Health at the Royal Society of Medicine. He is from West Belfast and studied medicine in Queen’s University.

He was Regional Director of Public Health in England for nearly 20 years before resigning in 2012 due to his concerns over how the government was handling the UK’s National Health Service.

While in that role he dealt with several high profile clinical service failures including breast screening and pathology scandals. He authored a paper on ‘clinical governance’ which analysed the incidents.

He also led the NHS review of the commissioning of care and treatment for patients at Winterbourne View, where patients were seriously abused.

An international expert in women’s health, Dr Karin Denton, has also been drafted in to provide assistance in the preliminary inquiry.

What will the the team investigate? 

The scoping inquiry will examine details of the non-disclosure of information from CervicalCheck audits to patients and what various parties, including the HSE and the Department of Health, knew and when they knew it.

It will also examine the tendering, contracting and operation of the labs contracted by CervicalCheck.

The inquiry will consult Vicky Phelan and any other woman affected, or their next of kin, who wish to have an input.

A separate strand of the examination will review the screening tests of all the women who have developed cervical cancer who participated in the screening programme since it was established.

Some of the inquiry’s other key terms of reference are:

  • Examine all aspects of CervicalCheck.
  • Examine the information provided by CervicalCheck to those receiving a service.
  • Examine why the policy of open disclosure was not implemented by CervicalCheck.
  • Examine the other screening programmes operated by the National Screening Service, particularly in relation to quality assurance and clinical audit, open disclosure and governance.

“The evidence is going to be scrutinised, we’re going to get experts to identify what went wrong and then there will be issues as to who’s accountable,” Minister Bruton said.

When asked if heads will roll because of the scandal Bruton said: “You don’t set up an inquiry and then seek to draw solutions in advance.”

What we do know

All of the women knew they had cancer when CervicalCheck discovered their incorrect smears. The organisation found these erroneous test results during an audit of smears belonging to women who had gone on to develop cancer.

Most of the women involved were not informed that they had wrongly been given a false negative result.

What we don’t know

One of the key questions the inquiry is tasked with addressing is whether any of the private sector laboratories that were analysing the smear tests were substandard.

No data has yet been released on the error rates of the individual labs and it’s not yet known if the accuracy rate varied from one facility to another.

The probe will examine the operation, quality assurance, performance and accreditation of all of the laboratory services that were contracted by CervicalCheck.

If you’re concerned about the results of your smear test, you can contact the HSE’s CervicalCheck freephone helpline:

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

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About the author:

Ceimin Burke

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