Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health

Quarterly Update on Health Issues: Discussion
Quarterly Update on Health Issues: Discussion

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I might ask Dr. Peter McKenna if he wants to add anything from a clinical perspective to what I say. I answered questions on CervicalCheck in the Dáil yesterday and we have a debate with questions and answers on the issue today. I remember the Deputy's letter and the case of Ann, which she raised here. There are no two ways about it. We have a very significant backlog in our CervicalCheck programme, with an average waiting time of some 22 weeks. I do not suggest that is appropriate, desirable or acceptable, but I want Ann, and everybody else who is affected, to know that everything possible is being done to drive the waiting time down, including the HSE working to find additional capacity. This is very challenging as there is a global shortage in cytology, but the HSE is working on a capacity plan, which I expect to receive shortly. I think the Deputy knows that this is not a resourcing issue. If we could write a cheque to solve this problem, we would write it in the morning.

There are two reasons for the backlog. When the CervicalCheck controversy broke, many people, including some in this room, asked if people could have a repeat smear test and whether they would have to pay for it. People said it was not fair that a woman could get that assurance if she could afford it but that, if she could not, she would have to wait three years. At a time of great uncertainty, it was not easy to provide clarity on our screening programme and we needed to wait for Dr. Scally's report for that. Contrary to the cheap political charges that have been made against me, I took the decision, in conjunction with my officials and the Chief Medical Officer, to offer the free repeat smear test and I negotiated the fee to be paid to GPs with the IMO. This has meant many women went for tests, and while many got reassurance, it has contributed to the backlog.

The second reason is something we saw in the UK, which became known as the Jade Goody effect. After Jade Goody's high-profile illness, many women opted into the screening service, and while I am not sure of the figures, this could account for up to one third of the backlog. This estimate has not been validated so I cannot stand over it.

Up to a third of the backlog could be new women signing up to the screening programme who had not participated but I am awaiting figures on that. They are the reasons behind the backlog. The people, who are working night and day, are very familiar to this committee. People, like Mr. Damien McCallion, in the HSE are doing everything they possibly can on this and I am very confident about that.

I have been told cervical cancer is something that can develop over a period of ten to 15 years and that the clinical risk is low but Dr. McKenna is much more qualified to speak about clinical risk than I am.