Wednesday 24 July 2019

'We're sorry' - Thousands of women still waiting for callback from CervicalCheck helpline

Vicky Phelan who received incorrect smear test results in 2011 and was subsequently diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Vicky Phelan who received incorrect smear test results in 2011 and was subsequently diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014. Photo: Fergal Phillips

Eilish O'Regan, Shane Phelan and Amy Molloy

The Health Service Executive has apologised to the thousands of women yet to receive a callback after phoning the CervicalCheck helpline.

The Irish Independent revealed today how more than 5,500 worried women who phoned the CervicalCheck helpline in the wake of the cancer scandal have yet to receive a callback.

National director with the HSE, Damien McCallion, said they are working to increase the number of healthcare professionals involved with the helpline.

"We are sorry it is taking so long to get back to the many women that have called us," he told RTÉ's News at One.

"These calls do take time and we are working through the concerns that people have. We have increased the number of healthcare professionals we have available and we are looking to increase that throughout the week.

"We've looked at options around overtime, we've had a huge input from staff over the Bank Holiday and we are hoping to grow that through next week."

CervicalCheck facing surge of claims
CervicalCheck facing surge of claims

Despite the panic and anxiety about the accuracy of smear tests, it has emerged that only 1,962 of the 7,575 women who requested a return call have had a response so far.

The helpline, which was set up last weekend in a bid to alleviate women’s fears, has received 10,801 calls so far, including 54 as late as yesterday.

The helpline was swamped after revelations that Vicky Phelan, a mother-of-two from Co Limerick, developed terminal cervical cancer in 2014 after getting an incorrect smear result in 2011.

It was only thanks to the High Court case brought by Ms Phelan that it emerged that 209 women who developed cervical cancer and whose test result gave a false negative had an internal report carried out on them confirming the mistake.

But the majority were not told of the review.

The HSE said yesterday that calls were being returned to women following a careful exercise of checking records, checking data quality and assigning calls to health professionals.

“To date, 1,962 calls have been returned to women.

“Calls are being returned throughout this weekend and will continue through the week.

”It has still to contact all the 209 women or their next of kin about the internal CervicalCheck reports.

As of yesterday, a total of 198 women or their families had been contacted.

Seventeen of the women have died and just two were told of the report confirming the test result mistake before they died.

Hospitals where the women were treated have been working for the past week to contact all the women affected and to discuss the audit with them, said a HSE spokesman.

Thousands of women are expected to take up a free smear re-test which is being offered at GP surgeries and clinics.

Fianna Fáil’s Stephen Donnelly said the Oireachtas Health Committee was told the HSE would work through all the calls in about three days.

“That was Friday or Saturday. With a scandal of this level Saturday and Sunday need to count as working days,” he said.

Mr Donnelly said getting the response right “falls to Tony O’Brien as well”.

“Clearly that has not happened, so you could turn the question on its head and ask what is the reason for him to stay at this stage.”

Meanwhile, the Irish Cancer Society said that over the past week, the nurses on its freephone Nurseline – 1800 200 700 – had been providing one-to- one information and advice to women worried about their smear tests.

“While it is understandable that many women are worried about their smear tests as a result of this scandal, it is essential women continue to avail of CervicalCheck,” said a spokesperson.

“Vicky Phelan has repeatedly urged other women not to let her experience put them off going for their free smear tests.

“Cervical screening has saved many women’s lives and will continue to do so as long as women use the service.

“The Irish Cancer Society repeats Vicky’s calls to continue to get screened. If you receive an invitation from CervicalCheck, BreastCheck or BowelScreen, please take it up.

"Encourage your female friends and family to do the same,” said the spokesperson.

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