Sunday 21 July 2019

Men do not face these types of scandals – is women’s health just taken less seriously?

Lorraine Courtney. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Lorraine Courtney. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

Irish women are used to being treated badly. We make up more than half the population, but we still have to fight our corner, even when very sick.

Vicky Phelan is yet another heart-breaking example of how women are treated like they don’t know their own bodies by the people they’re supposed to be able to rely on for help. Now we know that 17 Irish women of the 208 affected by the smear test scandal have died.

Dr David Gibbons was chair of the Cytology/Histology Group within the Quality Assurance Committee of the National Cervical Screening Programme when he brought up his concerns about outsourcing Irish smear tests to the United States. On RTÉ News he said he felt it would lead to missed cases. That was 10 years ago.

He had huge concerns about a “mismatch” of systems because Ireland would test for cervical cancer every three to five years, while the US would test smear samples every year.

Dr Gibbons resigned.

On top of that, medical science is inherently flawed – there will always be false negatives and false positives. And the current cervical screening test is just that – a screening test and not a diagnostic test.

They are designed to find disease you don’t know about and the trade-off between benefits and harms tends to be much more nuanced compared with tests done to investigate symptoms.

Smear tests are not strictly tests at all but I wonder if this is being explained to patients by the GPs and nurses carrying them out? I don’t think it is.

How many women realise the smear test is to try to prevent cancer from developing, not to diagnose cancer?

If the woman hasn’t been told about this, she will imagine she has just gotten an all clear and possibly go on to ignore symptoms like bleeding thinking she’s grand because she had a smear taken in the last year.

It’s a scandal that we are this badly informed about our own bodies and doctors are keeping it that way.

As women, the Irish health service has been historically pitted against us, our minds and our bodies, leaving us undervalued, ignored and sometimes dead.

The Blood Transfusion Service Board found out about the possibility of a batch of contaminated anti-D immune globulin in 1991 but waited three more years before making it public.

Imagine, senior blood service figures suspected these women’s condition much earlier, possibly up to two years earlier, but did not tell them. Then, rather than gracefully accept responsibility, the State tried to bully the women involved into silence.

We can’t forget either that 129 Irish women had their wombs removed unnecessarily and more than 1,500 women had their pelvises deliberately broken during childbirth, rarely giving consent. It was only in 2014 that a redress scheme was announced for symphysiotomy survivors.

These stories are not all from some primitive past. Right now the chief medical officer is examining the use of transvaginal mesh devices.

They are used to treat conditions such as prolapse and incontinence, but some women are reporting side-effects ranging from chronic pain to organ damage and paralysis.

We know that some women are waiting years for an endometriosis diagnosis.

You just have to wonder how much better endo would be understood, taken seriously and more readily diagnosed if it were not isolated to the female body.

So, what on earth is going on here? Are women, simply, taken less seriously when it comes to their health? Or is there something else at play? I can’t think of a single male health scandal.

Then, the HSE continues to drag civil cases though the courts for lengthy periods, causing more unnecessary pain.

In fairness, Simon Harris seems to want to change this. He’s said: “I am the health minister who introduced open disclosure, because I want to see a situation whereby nobody has to go to court to ascertain what happened in relation to their medical experience or their interaction with the health service.”

Harris said he wanted honest exchanges of information between patients and their doctors and that “we should never see someone go to the steps of court to establish the truth”. We shouldn’t.

For most of these victims, it isn’t even about money. They are just hoping nothing similar will happen again.

Too much damage has been inflicted on Irish women down the years. Has the State learned nothing?

Without immediate action, Vicky Phelan’s work and that of countless women like her will be in vain.

And while many of us hope against hope that doesn’t happen, thousands of cases – sadly – suggest otherwise.

Irish Independent

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