Cork doctor: CervicalCheck scaremongering led to long waiting lists and abuse of staff

Cork doctor: CervicalCheck scaremongering led to long waiting lists and abuse of staff
Dr Noirin Russell, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Cork University Maternity Hospital.

THE scaremongering that followed the CervicalCheck controversy has left the cancer screening service in crisis, according to a leading expert in the field.

The CervicalCheck controversy came to light in April 2018 when Limerick woman Vicky Phelan highlighted communication issues surrounding an audit of smears belonging to women who were diagnosed with cervical cancer in the years after their tests.

Dr Nóirín Russell, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Cork University Maternity Hospital, said CervicalCheck screening has seen massively increased demand since then, but no new resources to deal with the extra workload.

She added that “political grandstanding and scaremongering” led to terrified women constantly contacting the service, and ultimately to staff being abused and quitting their posts.

Speaking to The Echo, Dr Russell said: “The increased demand arrived in May 2018 but the resources to deal with it still have not.

“We’ve seen 57% more women with the same amount of resources.

“That has led to waiting lists in colposcopy, which is something we’ve never had."

Cork University Maternity Hospital 
Cork University Maternity Hospital 

A colposcopy, which usually takes place following a smear test, is the medical procedure to check for cancer in women.

“Before April 2018, 98% of women were seen within eight weeks of referral - it was one of the few areas of the health service where there wasn’t a waiting list,” Dr Russell said.

“Since April 2018 and the increase in referrals, there is now a huge backlog and women are ringing colposcopy clinics because they don’t know when they’re going to be seen.

“I know that there are somewhere between 400 and 600 women waiting for an appointment in Cork,” said Dr Russell.

“This is leading to a huge amount of worry for women and also severe stress for staff because they can see these women need to be seen but they don’t have the appointment slots or staff to give them.”

The increase in referrals, Dr Russell explained, stemmed from the level of misinformation and scaremongering that surfaced in April 2018, when the CervicalCheck controversy surrounding the first audit broke.

“The political grandstanding, talk about manslaughter charges - the level of scaremongering was beyond belief and it terrified women,” she said.

“It’s not a fair thing to do - it makes a great soundbite - but scaring women off a screening programme that works is not an ethical thing to do.

“In May last year, there were a lot of angry phone calls from women who thought they had cancer and no one told them - that was never the case,” she added.

Dr Russell said that concerned women also called, as waiting times for results increased from around four or six weeks to 26 weeks.

“To read all those extra smears without any extra resources led to huge delays.

“Then women were waiting to see if they needed further treatment or examination - they were ringing every day,” she added.

“Staff at the central hub of CervicalCheck which is based in Limerick got a lot of abuse over the phone.

“It’s horrific for staff morale and staff have left because of it.”

Dr Russell explained that CervicalCheck has operated in line with international standards and that it can only detect the majority but not all cancers, like any other screening service.

“It’s absolutely tragic for women who did not get that early cancer diagnosis and we completely understand that.

“If, as a society, we can’t accept that screening will not detect all cancers, then screening will not survive,” she warned.

“We need to focus on the 2.1 million women who are eligible for this programme and reassure them that it is as good as it can be - it’s not perfect because no screening programme can be - but it’s as good as the UK and other programmes.”

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