Sunday 16 December 2018

Fears smear samples will expire in busy labs, forcing women to repeat their test

HSE pushes to clear backlog before six-week deadline

Simon Harris hopes repeat tests will restore confidence. Photo: Frank McGrath
Simon Harris hopes repeat tests will restore confidence. Photo: Frank McGrath
Laura Larkin

Laura Larkin

Health officials have insisted that "all efforts" are being made to avoid a backlog in smear tests, causing samples to expire before they can be read.

Concerns have been raised that delays would necessitate women to return for a further stressful repeat test.

Following the emergence of the CervicalCheck controversy the Government offered any woman a repeat test free of charge, and some 57,000 additional consultations have been carried out.

However, the increased demand on the labs who read the smears has led to concern that samples cannot be read in time.

The National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP) is understood to have raised concerns with the National Cancer Screening Service over GPs being informed smears have expired before then can be read.

Samples must be read within six weeks. It is understood the NAGP is concerned that in some cases the turnaround time may now be 12 weeks.

It is concerned about the impact on women affected by the delay that having to do another smear test may have.

However, the HSE said that it is only aware of an issue "in a small number of cases". In these cases "certain smears may have to be retaken".

"This can occur where the smear is not sufficient for reading, the smear has expired for various reasons or the slide is damaged," a spokeswoman for the HSE said.

"Laboratories have to ensure the smear is on a slide no later than six weeks in order to ensure it does not expire. We are aware of only a small numbers of these situations."

The HSE said "all efforts are being taken to avoid such circumstances" and said the situation is being monitored.

Health Minister Simon Harris said the free repeat test was "appropriate as part of patient reassurance".

"Laboratories have brought on additional staff, commenced overtime and tapped into their wider organisation for assistance," he said.

The labs are reporting to the HSE CervicalCheck team on a weekly basis, providing status updates on the number of samples received, processing times etc, the HSE spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, measures have been put in place at BreastCheck to meet an increase in demand from women requesting access to their records or reviews.

For his part, the health minister said he is committed to working with clinicians to support the country's valuable screening programmes which reduce cancer rates and help save lives.

Mr Harris said he is "confident" that the various strands of the investigation into the CervicalCheck programme as well as a move to HPV testing, which is a more accurate test, will help to restore public confidence in the programme.

Concern has emerged among the medical community that the recent controversy has led to confusion and mistrust about the programmes.

Last year, more than half a million people used the three screening programmes, BreastCheck, CervicalCheck and BowelScreen.

Irish Independent

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