CervicalCheck withdraws media guide over criticisms

Guide indicated ‘no lives were put at risk’ by doctors not informing patients of the results of an audit of their smears

CervicalCheck has withdrawn an explanatory guide to screening following criticisms from women affected by the 2018 controversy at the service.

The media guide said “no lives were put at risk” by doctors not informing patients of the results of an audit of their smears and that a failure to communicate these audit results “did not impact the treatment or care of the people concerned”.

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This prompted criticism last month from the 221+ patient support group representing those affected by the controversy, which described this version of events as “wholly incomplete and selective”.

Another row then erupted over remarks made by CervicalCheck clinical director Dr Nóirín Russell in a private meeting two years ago, which were leaked last month. Dr Russell appeared to suggest there was no basis to the claims being taken by some women with cervical cancer. She subsequently apologised.

Speaking on Friday, HSE chief executive Paul Reid said Dr Russell’s comments were extremely hurtful, inappropriate and damaging though, he pointed out, they had been made when she was just one month into the role.

He said he had met the 221+ group this week and Dr Russell had also met the group.

The 221+ group had expressed concern that “we mightn’t have looked back at the history appropriately” in the guide and, as a result, it had been withdrawn.

Mr Reid said the biggest regret of his career with the health service has been the deaths of staff from Covid-19. “They paid the ultimate price with their lives,” he told RTÉ Radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show. Mr Reid denied his decision to resign had anything to do with his relationship with the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.

On the issue of proposed changes to Navan hospital, Mr Reid said he would not like for himself or a member of his family to be taken to Navan emergency department today.

Mr Reid admitted that he was frustrated about the decision to pause the plan for Navan Hospital: “The Minister wanted us to stall so there were tensions.” The [HSE] board had a role to act on risks, but it also had to take cognisance of the Minister’s views. While he understood the position of politicians, the HSE had a responsibility “to see this through” in a way that was best for patients. “I value democracy, but equally I value my role and the role of the board and decisions made on the basis of safety.”

He said he foresaw a different future for Navan, along the lines of the changes made at Roscommon hospital after its emergency department was closed.

When asked if he thought the Minister respected him, Mr Reid said he did.

Mr Reid repeated his commitment to Sláintecare and said that the pandemic had been an opportunity to accelerate “a lot of reform. I’m really proud of how staff worked at pace during Covid and implemented changes. The priority was saving lives.” Despite Covid, he had “packed a lot in” by delivering reforms during this three-year stint.

Resignation letter

In his resignation letter, Mr Reid cited “frustrations” at feeling “constrained” in the HSE’s ability to deliver changes.

However, these frustrations were not the driver of his decision to step down early, he insisted on Friday.

Looking at the future agenda for the HSE, with an important period of restructuring under Sláintecare due, he felt it was time for a new leader of the organisation to lead that process.

Rejecting the suggestion that he was not committed to Sláintecare reforms, which would devolve central power from the HSE, Mr Reid said the time to reform was not during a global pandemic.

The right aspects of Sláintecare were implemented at the right time, he said, and [only] now was it time to move on to changes in organisational structures.

The deaths that occurred in nursing homes “breaks my heart”, he said. The question afterwards was what could have been done differently. Congregated settings were not the place to be during a pandemic.

Mr Reid said he looked back with “tormented learning”. The most emotional thing that had happened in his career was the deaths of staff during Covid-19 who paid the ultimate price. “That is one thing that I wished never happened.”

He said he has no immediate plans when he finishes work with the HSE. “For the first time in my career, I don’t know what’s next.” The first thing he is going to do is visit his three-year-old granddaughter in Texas. “After that, we will see.”

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times