Wednesday 23 October 2019

'Harris questioned my integrity,' says woman at centre of smear test glitch

Frustrated: Sharon Butler Hughes has been told by Health Minister Simon Harris that he won’t ‘revisit’ the issue in any meeting. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Frustrated: Sharon Butler Hughes has been told by Health Minister Simon Harris that he won’t ‘revisit’ the issue in any meeting. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

The woman who helped expose a laboratory computer glitch behind the delay in thousands of CervicalCheck screening tests has broken her silence to reveal her ongoing upset and distress at the failure to provide her with proper answers.

Sharon Butler Hughes, from Stepaside, Dublin, said she had been left with no option but to go public after failing to secure a meeting with Health Minister Simon Harris to discuss all her ongoing concerns.

"I have written to Mr Harris and the Taoiseach on five different occasions since August.

"Mr Harris said he will meet me but with pre-conditions.

"He will not discuss pressing issues which I believe puts my integrity in question," she said.

Ms Butler Hughes, who was diagnosed with pre-cancer cells in 2009 and has needed yearly smear tests since, went for screening in December.

When her test result did not come back she ended up making a series of phone calls from March to CervicalCheck and the Department of Health which led to no proper action for months until eventually, through her persistence, it was uncovered a glitch at the Quest laboratory in Chantilly, in the US, was at the heart of the delay.

It led to a rapid review being ordered and carried out by Professor Brian MacCraith who found 4,088 women were affected.

In the case of 873 women who had a repeat HPV test, no results were sent to them or to their GP for over six months .

In the remaining cases, GPs were informed but not the women concerned. She waited almost 34 weeks for her test results.

"My concern goes back to July. I had phoned the Department of Health on July 8 to follow up on the IT issue.

"I asked it to be escalated on June 27, the day after I became aware of the computer problem. I also wanted the long delays for results and customer service issues with CervicalCheck to be brought to the highest level in the department," she said.

"An official called me with an update on the evening of July 9 and during that call I specifically asked if Minister Harris was briefed on the IT issue and it was confirmed he was fully briefed."

However, in evidence to the MacCraith report the department said Mr Harris was not briefed until the following day.

"I was very hurt to see a different version of events to mine in the report," she said.

Mr Harris has corresponded with Ms Butler Hughes in reply to her follow-up letters since the report. He said he "warmly acknowledges" her work to bring to light the issue. However, he said that he was not informed of the report on the glitch until July 10.

"I would ask you to accept as I do that misunderstandings can arise," he said.

"Prof MacCraith has been provided with all relevant records and accepts that the report was received in my department on July 10.

"I look forward to the opportunity to meet with you in the near future"

However, he also wrote he did not intend to "revisit" the issue at their meeting or discuss what happened when it was mentioned at a meeting of the CervicalCheck steering committee.

Ms Butler Hughes outlined the depth of her ongoing unhappiness at how the issue was handled in letters to the minister.

She said there was no "misunderstanding" about what she was told on July 9, that he was informed of the report on the computer glitch.

"I find it insulting and you are causing further hurt…"

She also contacted HSE chief Paul Reid on August 7 to highlight the inadequate treatment she received from CervicalCheck, including being called the wrong name twice as late as July.

She has now questioned the validity of the HSE's "women's first" policy.

A spokeswoman for Mr Harris said the minister had been "happy to answer a number of questions Ms Butler Hughes has raised through correspondence" and had clarified the issue with regard to the date the report was received in his department. "He has assured Ms Butler Hughes her integrity is in no way being called into question and asked her to accept that misunderstandings arise," she said.

Prof Brian MacCraith's report concluded the report was received in the department on July 10 and that is what the record shows.

She added: "The minister looks forward to meeting Ms Butler Hughes to hear directly of her experiences."

Irish Independent

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