Saturday 20 July 2019

Comment: Scandal of such magnitude it shakes even our trust in doctors

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Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

SCANDALS come and go in this country on an almost monthly basis.

We know the banks are ripping us off. We know the developers are creaming it. We’ve lost count of the inquiries into the justice system. We know the Church has never fully repented for the gravity of its sins. We know the politicians have one eye on the next election. And we know the health service is a shambles.

But this is on a scale that cannot be allowed to pass into the dark abyss of a behind-closed-doors inquiry.

Health Minister Simon Harris admitted last night that he doesn’t understand how this happened.

“I genuinely don’t think the Irish public understand this bit: The idea that doctors received information pertaining to their patients and decided, ‘I don’t need to tell my patient that’,” he said.

Pause for a second and reread that quote.

Now think about the last time you went to your GP. Maybe you had to disrobe.

Perhaps he/she drew some blood despite your fear of needles. Afterwards he/she might have suggested some new tablets to get you through a tough personal period.

In a country where we no longer offer blind trust to the men of God or the people in blue, are we now supposed to give up trusting our medicine people as well?

Are we at a point where it’s not safe to place our full faith in doctors? Is it too much to ask that clinicians tell women the results of intimate tests?

Because that’s what has happened here. When you look past the political mudslinging that will engulf Leinster House for the next three days the reality is stark.

Fifteen women have died without knowing they may have had a delayed diagnosis of cervical cancer. Two others found out before they passed away.

And another 145 women found out yesterday or will be told the news today.

Some of those mothers, daughters and sisters are this May Day fighting cancer.

Others have beaten it but live with the scares.

“By and large most of these are young women with young families and that’s why I’m so upset,” Vicky Phelan said yesterday.

And this didn’t happen because one rogue doctor was too cowardly to face a woman and tell her a mistake had occurred.

The cowardice was cultural. Bosses in CervicalCheck believed that doctors’ “own clinical judgment should take precedence” when dealing with such difficult situations.

And as a result clinicians in Castlebar, Cork, the Coombe, Dundalk, the National Maternity Hospital Holles St, Limerick, the Rotunda, Sligo and Tallaght didn’t tell patients their own information.

Fewer than one-in-five of the 208 women caught up in this scandal was alerted to the issue in a timely fashion. As Ms Phelan, the new national spokesperson for common decency, put it: “I don’t think anyone could have imagined the magnitude of this.”

She could have been one of 15 women who died without ever knowing. Instead she accidentally discovered the mistake after being left alone with her hospital file.

They still dragged her to the steps of the High Court before a US laboratory coughed up €2.5m in compensation. She’d probably have gotten more too if she’d only agreed to keep her mouth shut.

Because that’s how bad this is. They wanted to silence her. Pay her off and move quickly on as if nothing had ever happened.

Luckily for us, she decided “to take these guys on”. Mr Harris admitted: “I think she’s done the State a huge amount of service. I wouldn’t know as Health Minister some of what I know if it wasn’t for Vicky Phelan’s courage.

“We wouldn’t be in this albeit difficult position today where we can take swift action were it not for Vicky Phelan.”

But sadly her story will sit in annals of national scandals. And when people say the name Vicky Phelan in 2030, we’ll know who they are talking about.

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