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Cancer e-referrals reached record highs during CervicalCheck controversy

Data from the HSE e-Health Ireland website shows that in May, cancer e-referrals reached almost 4,000 — the highest ever monthly figure.

The figure represents the highest number of monthly e-referrals recorded since March 2017, the date from which records are first available. 

In March 2018, referrals reached around 3,100 but this rose to 3,995 in May, representing an increase of 29 per cent. In June, the number of referrals fell to 3,300 and in August, totalled 3,420.

The dramatic increase in cancer e-referrals occurred in the same month (May) Minister for Health Simon Harris announced free repeat smears for women concerned about their cervical health amid growing unease at the time about the accuracy of smear test results.

Data for monthly cancer e-referral usage by GPs reveals a similar trend, with cancer e-referrals peaking in May at 1,640.

This compares to 1,370 e-referrals made by GPs in March. In June, July and August, monthly e-referrals totalled around 1,500 each month.

Referrals are made for breast, prostate, pigmented skin lesions and lung cancer through the NCCP.

An analysis of each condition shows breast clinic e-referrals reached over 3,000 in May alone, the highest monthly e-referral tally since March 2017.

In February, breast clinic e-referrals amounted to 2,260 but rose to almost 2,500 in March and 2,600 in April. In August, monthly breast clinic e-referrals were about 2,500.

Almost 75 per cent of all cancer e-referrals made in August concerned breast cancer.

Pigmented skin lesion e-referrals reached their highest monthly number since March 2017 in May, with 567 e-referrals recorded.

The largest monthly e-referral figure for lung cancer since March 2017 also occurred in May, when numbers reached 137.

Prostate cancer e-referrals reached a peak of 235 in June, again the highest monthly number of referrals on record since March 2017.

In April, Ms Vicky Phelan, a mother-of-two from Co Limerick, settled a High Court action against a US laboratory for €2.5 million over a 2011 smear test, which wrongly gave a negative result for cancer. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and told of the false negative in the smear test in September 2017.

IMO GP Chairperson Dr Pádraig McGarry said the increase probably reflected that when patients attended for repeat smears, some may have used the opportunity to discuss other health concerns with their doctor.

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