Cervical Check scandal a consequence of privatisation

Once again problems relating to women’s health and the treatment of women within the health system were exposed with the the discovery that 209 women are affected by the Cervical Check scandal that emerged in the last few weeks.

Once again people’s lives, and in particular those of women, have been endangered by the continuing privatisation of medical services. Mary Harney, then minister for health, oversaw the privatisation of cervical smear testing, formerly carried out by the public health service. The cheapest bid was from a company called Quest Diagnostics Inc. of Teterboro, New Jersey

Cervical Check, the national cervical screening programme, offers a free smear test to women aged between twenty-five and sixty. The tests were subcontracted to three laboratories: in Ireland to the Coombe Women and Infants’ University Hospital and Medlab Pathology at Sandyford, Co. Dublin, and in the United States to Quest Diagnostics.

Over the last ten years Quest Diagnostics analysed 3 million smears from 1.8 million women, more than 280,000 per year.

More than 1,480 cases of cervical cancer were identified in the Cervical Check scheme since 2008. In 442 of the cases it was decided that a review was warranted; in 206 of these the delay in the cancer being detected suggests that the women missed out on earlier intervention.

The scandal emerged only after Vicky Phelan of Annacotty, Co. Limerick, a 43-year-old woman with two children who has cervical cancer, settled a High Court case against Quest Diagnostics. Vicky Phelan had a smear test in 2011 after the birth of her second child, and it showed no abnormalities. She went for a further test in 2014, and cancer was diagnosed.

In 2014 an audit of her 2011 test showed that it was not accurate. She is now suffering from terminal cancer and has been told she has between six and twelve months to live.

In 2014 the outcome of the audits of smears was used only for “educational and training purposes” by Cervical Check; then in 2015 the HSE decided that the audits should be passed on to the women’s treating doctors, who would pass these on to the women “as appropriate.”

In total, 162 of these women were not told about the revised results; of these women, 17 are now dead. If signs of the cancer had been detected in the original tests such women might have received treatment earlier.

This crisis is a direct result of the privatisation of this service, putting women’s lives after corporate profits. We need to end privatisation and outsourcing. We have to put an end to the two-tier health service, and demand the establishment of a proper all-Ireland public health service, centred on and accountable to the people, not bureaucratic structures and quangos such as the HSE.