Tuesday, 15 January 2019
Department of Health
Cancer Screening Programmes
808. To ask the Minister for Health when he received the advice from his officials on the impact of announcing a recheck on cervical smear tests; if he held meetings with his officials at that time, the discussion on same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1722/19]
809. To ask the Minister for Health the rationale of announcing the repeat cervical smears for women following receipt of advice stating this would have a seriously negative impact on the service; the reason he did not make it known that he had received this advice; if he sought extra funding to resolve the extra waiting times for the women; if extra funding was allocated to address the waiting times for results; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1723/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 808 and 809 together.
In May 2018, I asked CervicalCheck to make the necessary arrangements to provide that any woman who had had a CervicalCheck smear test, and whose GP considered that they should have a further test, to access such a further test without charge. This decision was made in good faith to address the considerable fears of the many anxious women in Ireland as a result of significant media coverage of the issues that emerged in late April. Many thousands of women contacted the CervicalCheck helpline. Requests for additional supports and reassurance were considered in this context, including the provision of an opportunity for a GP consultation for women who wished to discuss their request for a repeat smear. Provision for these out-of-cycle smears ceased at the end of last year, as envisaged, in the context of the reassurance provided by the Report of the Scoping Inquiry about the quality management processes within the laboratories contracted by CervicalCheck.
In terms of the waiting times for results of smear tests, this has resulted from an overall increase in the volume of women presenting for smear tests, including out-of-cycle smears and increased uptake of scheduled screening. This increased level of engagement with the programme is welcome. However, the increased demand has undoubtedly put immense pressure on lab capacity.
The HSE has been working actively with the laboratories to manage this and to improve turnaround times for smear tests, and has reported that laboratories have agreed to undertake additional recruitment, provide for overtime and manage annual leave in an effort to minimise the backlog. In addition, the HSE is aiming to source additional screening capacity, which would improve the turnaround time of results. However, the core challenge in relation to smear test turnaround times is availability of laboratory capacity. Sourcing capacity and resources is a global challenge as countries start to move to primary HPV screening, which vastly reduces the requirement for cytology screening staff.
The HSE is currently developing a capacity plan to address available capacity and expected demand, with the aim of bringing the programme into stabilisation this year.
Extra funding to address laboratory capacity issues has not been sought by the HSE. However, significant additional funding has been allocated in 2019 to implement the recommendations of Dr Gabriel Scally’s inquiry into the CervicalCheck Screening Programme as well as to implement the switch to HPV testing as the primary screening.