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Sandyford lab told Simon Harris that CervicalCheck was 'in jeopardy' and urgent action was needed

Six months later, the HSE announced that GPs had been told the offer of free repeat smear tests were to end on 31 December.

Image: PA Wire/PA Images

THE SYDNEY-BASED COMPANY that runs the laboratory in Dublin tasked with examining cervical smear slides had warned the government that the CervicalCheck programme was “in jeopardy” in June last year.

The warning came a month and a half after Minister for Health Simon Harris announced free repeat smear tests would be available to women to alleviate concerns in the wake of the smear test scandal.

The CEO of Sonic Healthcare Ltd, which runs Medlab Pathology – the laboratory based in Sandyford, Dublin which examines half of the CervicalCheck smear tests – wrote to the Minister for Health saying that “urgent intervention” was needed to cope with the increased demand.

In a letter released to TheJournal.ie under a Freedom of Information request, Dr Colin Goldschmidt wrote that there had been a fivefold increase in the requested smear tests, which was resulting in “increasing delays in the delivery of results to CervicalCheck”.

…Prior to the recent crisis, approximately 4,000 samples would be within acceptable limits of Medlab Pathology’s maximum screening capacity – this number has now increased to over 20,000 specimens and continues to grow further.

Goldschmidt said that this “critically urgent situation was so grave” that he had offered to travel to Dublin to meet with Harris on 21 June – this meeting didn’t take place.

“Minister, as you are aware, women must be prioritised and an urgent solution must be put in place which best protects their health. To this end, we are seeking your urgent intervention,” Goldschmidt concluded.

Without immediate action, we believe that the future viability of the cervical screening programme is in jeopardy.

FP letter Source: FOI/Department of Health


Last year, it was revealed that 221 women who had received a cancer diagnosis were not told that their earlier smear test results had been reviewed, and that errors had been found among some of them.

Of these women, 18 have since died – including CervicalCheck campaigner Emma Mhic Mhathúna and Irene Teap, whose husband Stephen campaigns for the women affected by the CervicalCheck controversy. 

In order to reassure women of the integrity of the smear test screening programme, Harris ordered a report into CervicalCheck and its labs, which was carried out by Dr Gabriel Scally.

Harris also announced that from 1 May 2018, women who had availed of a CervicalCheck smear test were able to get a second test free of charge to alleviate concerns women had about the results they had received.

In October, a gynaecologist in the Mid-West wrote to Simon Harris to warn him of the pressure the health system was under, saying that there had been a delayed diagnosis in their colposcopy unit due to the surge in demand caused by the free repeat smear tests.

Around this time, some women who were waiting for their smear test results wrote to the Health Minister expressing concern about the 20 week wait, as stated on the HSE website, and asking what measures had been taken to deal with the surge.

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On 6 December, the HSE announced that GPs had been informed that the offer of a free repeat smear tests would end on 31 December “as scheduled”.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the Department for Health said that the decision to offer free out-of-cycle smears was made “in good faith to address the considerable fears of the many anxious women in Ireland”, as acknowledged by Goldschmidt in his letter.

The Minister brought this correspondence to the attention of the National Director of the Screening Service, and responded to Medlab noting recent engagements that had taken place between the HSE and Medlab on this issue.

“The backlog of smear samples remains a priority concern for both the Department and the HSE. 

“The HSE is currently developing a capacity plan which will take account of available capacity and expected demand with the aim of bringing the programme into stabilisation this year.”

Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers said that the National Screening Service informed her yesterday that “following an engagement process with the HSE, the laboratories have agreed to undertake additional recruitment”.

Chambers said that this was to deal with the backlog in smear tests that were to be examined, adding that there had been “hundreds of cases whereby the smears themselves have gone out of date because there is such a time lag between the smears being taken and them being examined in the lab”. 

While [the additional recruitment] is welcome, it begs the question, why did it take so long for these additional resources to be approved?

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