Wednesday 19 September 2018

'It's been a dreadful week for the health service' - Taoiseach

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar wants similar cases settled quickly. Photo: PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar wants similar cases settled quickly. Photo: PA
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar has said it has been a "dreadful" week for the health service and is not ruling out a public inquiry into the cervical cancer scandal.

And he praised Vicky Phelan, the terminally-ill Limerick mum-of-two, who exposed the smear-test controversy after she settled her High Court Action against a US laboratory for €2.5m.

Mr Varadkar said she is "the person who really shook the whole system up and woke us up to this".

He was speaking after he officially opened a primary care centre in Tallaght.

Ms Phelan has called for a public inquiry into the scandal.

Mr Varadkar said he agrees with her that any inquiry it should be "speedy" and "transparent".

He said he spoke to her today and they have agreed she will participate in the scoping exercise that will determine the nature of the inquiry.

Mr Varadkar said that statutory inquiries can take many months, if not years and cautioned that if they're held in public in a tribunal-type format they can "take even longer still".

However, he said he is "absolutely open" to a public inquiry being held and "certainly not ruling it out" saying he sees the merits of such an investigation.

In his earlier speech Mr Varadkar said "this week has been a dreadful week for our health service, even more so for the women who are affected."

He said the government is determined to restore public trust and will "do everything necessary... so that Irish women and families can have confidence in the investigations, screening and treatments that we offer them both now and into the future."

He also spoke of the need for open disclosure by doctors and the importance of them informing patients fully about their health which has been a key issue in the current controversy.

Mr Varadkar said open disclosure is "nothing new" and has been HSE policy since 2013.

He added: "last year we legislated to protect open disclosure of all incidents so that healthcare staff can be sure that it's ok to apologise and that won't be used against you in court.

"It's ok to admit mistakes. That won't necessarily be assumed to be negligence and that will become law in June," he added.

He also said the government will soon legislate to "make sure that mandatory open disclosure applies in serious incidents or serious reportable errors".

But he said he doesn't think that will be enough adding: "what's required is a  culture change. A change from a culture of secrecy to a culture of truth, from defensiveness to openness."

Mr Varadkar said he's proud to be a member of the medical profession and that they are the hardest working, most caring people in our society.

However, he said: "we can also be far too paternalistic... There is a view still that doctor knows best and when it comes to passing on vital information to patients sometimes doctors still take the view that we shouldn't do it if there's no benefit from a healthcare point of view or if if it might just make them more distressed, that there might be more harm done than good."

Mr Varadkar said this is a "backward view" and an attitude "we really can't accept anymore".

"It's not our decision. This is patients' information. It's information about their lives and their bodies and their health and they have a right to know it.

"It's not a judgement call. It's always appropriate to give patients full information about their own health.

"And I think sometimes as doctors as well and healthcare professionals, we sometimes make out that we're infallible, the old concept that the doctor is almost godlike."

Mr Varadkar said that's a "big mistake" because medicine isn't an exact science and it requires judgement calls that always include a margin or error, which is not negligence or incompetence.

"We need to have a different culture in healthcare. One where we trust our patients more and we trust them with the truth," he added.

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