Friday, December 1, 2023


LOCAL political representatives have voiced concern that cervical screening records for 17,000 Southern Trust patients have to be reviewed.

On Monday, a Royal College of Pathologists (RCPath) risk assessment report – the result of its assessment of the Trust’s screening services between January 2008 and October 2021 – recommended this course of action as “a precautionary measure”, prompting concerned reactions from Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard MP and the SDLP’s Colin McGrath and Laura Devlin. Responding to the report, a Trust statement said that, in July 2022, senior laboratory staff had notified management about “concerns about performance in some steps of their laboratory’s screening system”, which led to the RCPath assessment.

The report, it was noted, found that “the majority of negative results issued by the laboratory were correct”; however, it also found that “a significant number of women are likely to have had negative screening results from the Southern Trust laboratory, which would have been identified as potentially abnormal by other laboratories”. “Therefore, as a precautionary measure, the Southern Trust is to review the records of about 17,000 women screened during the period in question,” the statement continued. “The purpose of the review is to look again for abnormalities to double-check that the correct information was provided. “In the majority of cases, we will be able to review the previous smear, which is stored in our laboratory, but, in some cases, we will invite women to attend for a further smear test.” The Trust will now write to the patients with further information, and have advised that they should not contact their GP to make a smear test appointment “unless they have recently received an invitation to attend for one as part of the routine screening programme”.

Trust medical director Dr Stephen Austin apologised “on behalf of the Trust for what has happened”, and highlighted that a freephone helpline (0800 9520255) has been established to answer questions or concerns. “The RCPath report contains a number of recommendations,” he said.

“The Trust fully accepts these, and we are working with the Public Health Agency and Department of Health to implement them in full and at pace. “Most of the recommendations have already been implemented, and work is well under way to implement the remaining recommendations.” A Department of Health statement said that the findings in the report are “clearly unacceptable”, and that it would be “closely monitoring the actions being taken at Trust and regional level”. It also stated that it is “on course for full introduction of primary HPV (human papillomavirus) testing by December 2023”. “This will be a new era for the cervical screening in Northern Ireland,” the statement read. “It should also help facilitate the removal of the current backlog for reporting smear test results.”

Mr Hazzard said that the report’s findings had been “deeply concerning”, and that the women affected must be “fully supported”. “The Department of Health and the relevant Trusts need to ensure women’s health is a priority, and ensure this backlog is dealt with as quickly as possible,” added the South Down MP. “The women affected by this backlog must be contacted as a matter of urgency and be fully supported through this process. “We have written to the Department of Health seeking urgent clarity on their plan to speed this process up, and assess the impact on the current backlog of smear test results.” Mr McGrath stated that, given the “crucial role that regular smear tests play”, it is “seriously concerning that the report from RCPath has identified a litany of failings in the way the Southern Trust has handled cervical screening dating back to 2008”. “This will cause serious worry to the thousands of women impacted by this situation, and, while the vast majority of women concerned should hopefully be unaffected, there can be no excuses for what has happened here,” added the South Down MLA. “I welcome the Department of Health’s confirmation that the full introduction of primary HPV testing should conclude by the end of this year. “This will be crucial in removing the backlog for issuing the results of smear tests and ensuring women have access to the most effective tests available.”

Cllr Devlin said that the report’s findings represented “appalling news”. “Women’s health in Northern Ireland is in a shocking state as it is,” she stated. “We are way behind the rest of these islands, in terms of a lack of a women’s healthcare strategy and also using a substandard method for cervical screening in comparison to our neighbours across the water and down south. “Then those women in the Southern Trust are dealt a further blow with this announcement. “There have been serious failings across the board, and they must urgently be addressed.” The Mournes councillor added that it is “horrific” that so many women are “now sitting with a cloud over them, wondering if they have wrongly been given the allclear”, and said that “apologies from the Southern Trust won’t cut it”. “Women must be treated with equality in terms of our healthcare needs,” she concluded.  “The Southern Trust must urgently implement the recommendations from RCPath, and reassure women and the wider population that this will never happen again.”

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