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Speaking to the Public Accounts Committee, Mr Connaghan said a key element within the March 2016 briefing on the audit was the assurance it gave that there were no systemic quality issues of concern with the programme.
Mr Connaghan stated the subject matter of the briefing was to provide a snapshot of the process to date and to escalate a particular issue at hand. This issue concerned one laboratory (Quest Diagnostics) that challenged the CervicalCheck Programme communications process with treating clinicians and invoked a dispute resolution process, as provided for in their contract.
CervicalCheck and the National Screening Service requested support to resolve the matter, according to Mr Connaghan.
“I have been advised that this is why ‘pause all letters’ was listed as a next step in the briefing,” Mr Connaghan told the PAC.“It was imperative that CervicalCheck and the National Screening Service resolved this issue so as to ensure it had [a] solid legal footing to continue with its work in sending audit findings to treating clinicians for onward disclosure to the women concerned, within the guidelines set out.
“If CervicalCheck were to continue sending letters, without the assurance that it had legal cover to do so, it could have created subsequent legal issues for the operation of the CervicalCheck programme, in addition to potential risks for any women seeking redress where the laboratory could claim its legal rights/entitlements were infringed by the process. This is why the ‘await advice from solicitors’ was one of the next steps in the briefing note from March 2016.”
Mr Connaghan confirmed that CervicalCheck were supported in resolving the dispute with Quest Diagnostics and the process of issuing letters to treating clinicians re-commenced in June 2016. During the time it took to resolve the dispute, CervicalCheck was preparing individual letters for each patient case history to send to treating clinicians. The March 2016 briefing note states that “There is now a batch/accumulation of clinical audit case reports that have been completed”.
Mr Connaghan said it was understood, by those that were briefed, that these case reports needed to be converted into individual letters in relation to each patient concerned.
“Correspondence demonstrates that this work was happening at this time and this correspondence will be made available to the scoping inquiry.”
Mr Connaghan told the Committee that in light of the controversy over the CervicalCheck audit, it must be ensured that healthcare professionals are not discouraged from taking part in clinical audit.
“Fostering an open culture which supports clinicians and encourages learning must be part of our ethos,” he said.
Mr Connaghan again apologised for the confusion and alarm, which has been created in relation to the CervicalCheck Programme as a result of the failure to communicate with the women affected.
He also stated the HSE “will move swiftly and with compassion to provide effective support packages to the women and families who require support.
“We will do that with the minimum of fuss and bureaucracy and with empathy,” according to Mr Connaghan.