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Cancer Society calls for action following delayed diagnosis cases

Ms Phelan’s smear test in 2011 was found to be incorrect in a 2014 audit of tests on a number of women. While Ms Phelan was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014, she did not learn of the review or audit until 2017.

Yesterday Ms Phelan, who is now terminally ill, settled a High Court action for €2.5 million against a clinical laboratory in the US, which is sub-contracted by CervicalCheck to assess the tests.

The Cancer Society said today that Ms Phelan and her family have been through a trying and traumatic experience, “and we wish her the very best with her continued treatment, and want to offer our support, should she or her family need it.”

It added: “A cancer diagnosis is one of the most, if not the most, difficult experiences a person and their family can deal with. Doing so at a late stage, in the knowledge that you could have been diagnosed earlier is a harrowing experience, and it is saddening to see cancer patients on the steps of the High Court.

“It is our understanding from reports today that at least 14 other women were affected by the review in which Vicky Phelan’s case was identified. The Irish Cancer Society wants those women to know that if any of them need support or wish to speak in confidence, the Society is here to listen, and our trained cancer nurses are available at 1800 200 700.”

The Irish Cancer Society said it is “fully supportive” of the CervicalCheck programme, “which is truly-life saving”.

It added: “This is the best available measure we have at our disposal to detecting cervical cancer early and has helped reduce the cervical cancer rate nationally at a rate of 7 per cent, per year. Combined with the HPV vaccine, there is an opportunity to all but eradicate cervical cancer in the decades ahead.

“The Society has full confidence in the service, which we expect will progress from smear to HPV testing as a first-line test in the near future. This will further reduce the risk of cervical cancer and improve identification of the risk of cervical cell abnormalities.

“We must acknowledge that there will never be a health service without some degree of human error and that no diagnostic test or screening service is 100 per cent reliable, but what should be the number one priority for all aspects of the health service is the patient and their care.”

In the case of Ms Phelan, the Irish Cancer Society said it is deeply concerned that it took three years to notify her of missed abnormalities in her initial screen. “This represents a breakdown in communication. No woman should have to wait this long for information relevant to their care.”

The Society added: “The health service needs to display candour in situations such as these. Recent months have seen a number of examples of poor communication around cancer misdiagnoses or missed abnormalities. This suggests that unless further change is forthcoming, a duty of candour for state bodies needs to be put on a statutory footing, so that patients get the information relevant to them and to stop the same problems happening again and again.

“There are clear lessons from this case for the HSE and the National Screening Service. An external review needs to take place to make sure that processes for communicating information about missed abnormalities or missed diagnoses are put in place, and that the responsibility for who must do that is made absolutely clear. This must be a prompt, responsive and unambiguous system, whereby all women are who find themselves in such a situation are communicated with, in line with their expressed wishes.”

The Society welcomed the comments from Prof Gráinne Flannelly, Clinical Director of CervicalCheck, that the service accepts the need for such an external review and this must happen as soon as possible.

“The Irish Cancer Society accepts mistakes happen in a service that cannot provide 100 per cent protection, but further, potentially devastating harm can be caused when information that is clearly pertinent to the patient is not communicated.”

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