HSE boss in dark on cervical 'glitch'

The chief executive of the Health Service Executive was not informed about the computer system glitch that has left hundreds of women without the results of CervicalCheck tests, according to a patient advocacy group.

Paul Reid, who took up the top job two months ago, is believed to have found out only last week about the IT glitch responsible for the latest communications failure to impact on the cancer screening programme.

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The HSE confirmed last Friday that it had become aware in February of an IT issue at a US laboratory which led to 800 women not receiving the test results electronically. The HSE said it been assured that the laboratory would send the results by letter to the women’s GPs instead, and only discovered subsequently that this had not been happening.

Stephen McMahon, of the Irish Patients’ Association, said the HSE confirmed to him last Friday night that Paul Reid had not been briefed in advance about what he said was a “systems failure”.

He said the failure to inform the CEO was of serious concern, given the importance of the cervical cancer screening programme and how dependent it is on trust.

“Its success is hugely dependent on women being able to trust in the service and issues such as these can do enormous reputational damage to the screening programme,” he said.

“As we have seen, the systems failures of last year have been repeated. And what is as concerning is that the chief executive was not briefed on this very serious development sooner. This is why we are looking for an independent inquiry.”

The HSE said questions put to it by the Sunday Independent about Mr Reid’s knowledge of the glitch will form part of the “rapid review” which has been commissioned to examine how the communication process for providing test results to women was planned and managed.

The Minister for Health, Simon Harris, said that he learned of the issue last Wednesday, the day before the story broke in the media. However, sources have questioned whether officials in his department were made aware of the problem sooner.

The HSE and the Department of Health are also coming under pressure to explain why the IT “glitch” was not brought to the attention of the CervicalCheck steering committee and the two patient representatives, Stephen Teap and Lorraine Walsh.

The steering group was set up to oversee the implementation of the Scally report after the cervical cancer screening programme was hit by controversy last year. Vicky Phelan disclosed that women who’d developed cervical cancer had not been told that their smear tests had been audited or told of the audit results.

Stephen Teap said the IT glitch that has left women without their test results should have been brought to the attention of the CervicalCheck steering group. “I would be very surprised if the HSE had not raised this with the Department of Health,” said Stephen Teap. “I have spoken to the Minister for Health and I spoke to Paul Reid and I have learned nothing new. But they said they will do what they can to find answers.

“This is a communications breakdown, again. I want to know who knew what and when, and why it was not brought to the CervicalCheck steering committee, and why patient representatives were not told.”

The HSE released more details about the computer glitch last Friday after RTE broadcast the story saying that it was known in February that there was a computer glitch at Quest Diagnostics laboratory in Chantilly in Virginia.

Dr Peter McKenna, Clinical Director of Women and Infants Health at the HSE, told RTE “elements” of the issue came to the HSE’s attention in the last 10 days or so”.

Letters that were due to be posted manually to women’s GPs by Quest were not sent. This only became apparent when women began chasing up their test results. It is understood there was also poor communication with GPs to give them prior notice of the results and how to communicate with the affected women.

Dr McKenna said it was “probably in some ways more important” than what had happened in the original CervicalCheck controversy, where women were not told about the results of look-back audits.

The controversy involved a delay in the communication of “actual clinical results”.

However in this case, the woman affected did not have a severe grade of abnormality and had been recommended to have further tests.

People before Profit TD Brid Smith has called on the Minister to restore screening services. She said it was “outrageous that women’s health is constantly being compromised by disclosure failures and delays”.

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