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Some smear test scientists investigated over cervical screening



Some smear test scientists investigated over cervical screening

By Aileen Moynagh & Marie-Louise ConnollyBBC News NI health team

Getty Images Gynaecologist is holding flask for cytology Pap smear test in hands. Getty Images

A small number of biomedical scientists are being investigated following fitness to practise concerns relating to cervical screening in the Southern Trust, BBC News NI understands.

In October 2023, it emerged smear tests of more than 17,000 women in the trust would be re-checked in a major review.

It is understood that some of the women affected have since referred the matter to the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), which investigates concerns about the practice of a professional on its register.

In a statement, the HCPC said it does not share details or information about individual cases where there are ongoing investigations and legal processes.

The Southern Trust said it had not referred any scientists to the HCPC as there was “insufficient information” to do so before the end of the review.

‘This is a scandal’

Stella McLoughlin from Newry, who is one of the 17,500 women affected by the re-check, said the review process has left her feeling “very afraid, fragile, and angry”.

“I don’t know why they’re calling it a review because to me this is a scandal. This has affected so many women,” she said.

Following news that other women in her position have referred the matter to the HCPC, she said there should be an investigation.

Stella McLoughlin

Stella McLoughlin received news of her review by post in June

‘Failed the women of Northern Ireland’

Dr Gabriel Scally, who led a 2018 review into cervical screening in the Republic of Ireland, said “it is a significant step” that the HCPC is carrying out an investigation.

“I think it’s very sad that it’s come to this because the saga of cervical screening and the way it has really failed the women of Northern Ireland,” he said.

“It’s about much, much more than just a couple of individuals whose screening performance in terms of looking at the slides is under question.”

Dr Gabriel Scally

Dr Gabriel Scally says the review has take “far too long”

Dr Scally’s view is that this should only be the “beginning of a really thorough review of what went wrong with cervical screening and what is still wrong with cervical screening in Northern Ireland”.

He said the current review is taking “far too long” and that “unnecessary” and “avoidable delays” are not good in a screening system.

Dr Scally feels that there shouldn’t just be a look at the screeners but at “why poor performance was tolerated in Northern Ireland, why they didn’t implement HPV [a new type of cervical screening, which Northern Ireland implemented years after England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland] and why we’ve still got a number of very small and potentially highly ineffective laboratories.”

Getty Images Gynaecologist holding vaginal speculumGetty Images

The trust says the review is on track to be complete by the end of July

‘I feel cheated’

Stella McLoughlin, 69, had what should have been her last smear test in 2019.

Once women turn 65, they usually stop being invited for screening because it is very unlikely that they will get cervical cancer, and are only invited again if a recent test was abnormal.

She said she was “really delighted” to be told the results were clear and was “enjoying life thinking everything was fine”, until she got a letter saying this was not the case.

The letter from the Southern Health Trust (SHT) said that her last smear test, which had been reported as negative, had been reviewed and now reported “low grade cell changes”.

It went on to state that most low grade changes return to normal over time but a “small proportion” can progress.

Stella said the fact it had been five years since her last smear test “really alarmed” her and she now felt “cheated”.

“I feel cheated because I was given a result five years ago that I trusted,” she said.

Stella has had another smear test since but must wait up to six weeks for the result.

‘Vast majority’ of previous smear tests are normal

The trust says it has reviewed 97% of smear tests.

It had aimed to have all slides reviewed by the end of June, but said they are “currently on track” to be completed by the end of July.

The timeline for anyone who needs a repeat smear has also been delayed by several weeks until mid-September.

The trust said this was revised to account for annual leave and due to the impact of the implementation of Encompass digital records in the Belfast Trust, “both of which incur system downtime”.

While full results will not be available until the review is complete, the trust said the “vast majority of previous smear results are unchanged and have been confirmed as normal”.

It said in a review of this size, it is expected that some abnormalities will be identified.

To date “some low-grade abnormalities and a very small number (less than five) of higher-grade abnormalities have been found”.

The trust is keen to stress that this “does not mean that cancer has been found”, but rather these women need “further investigation and management as required”.

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