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31st Mar 2023

Processing of cervical check samples suspended at the Coombe Hospital

Rory Fleming

The processing of cervical check samples has been suspended at the Coombe Hospital lab.

The state’s only certified laboratory has had its accreditation suspended, resulting in the cessation of processing cervical check samples.

Based at the Coombe Hospital in Dublin’s south inner city, the closure of the National Cervical Screening Laboratory has led to the outsourcing of the analysation of test samples.

All cervical cancer samples collected in the state are now once again being transported to labs in the United States, where further processing will take place.

Irish cervical check scandal

The decision to suspend the facility’s accreditation came on Tuesday when the Irish National Accreditation Board paused the HPV testing and cytology at the laboratory.

As a direct result of this decision, the HSE’s Cervical Check programme alongside the lab operators agreed that no further samples would be processed, but that those already in the system would be reported.

Quest Laboratories in the United States will now take over the processing of the cervical check slides that were due to be examined at the Coombe facility.

Given the lab at the Dublin 8 hospital is already the sole one of its kind in Ireland, the majority of samples collected from the national screening programme are already being handled by the American affiliate.

Responding to the news of the lab’s suspension, the director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, Dr Cillian de Gascon, attempted to quell any concerns regarding the quality of the work being undertaken at the lab.

“While I appreciate that this is very disappointing for all of us, I would like to assure you that it is not related to the technical quality of the work performed in the laboratory but rather to documentation related to governance structures and change management processes within the NCSL”, said de Gascun.

Despite rectifying a major non-compliance issue which occurred last year regarding the appointment of a senior staff member, the lab failed in amending other non-compliance issues relating to the management of the facility.

The NCSL began processing samples in a dedicated €20 million new facility last December and planned to handle 10 per cent of the 300,000 samples received by CervicalCheck each year, a target which now will most likely not be met.

Although the processing of samples has relocated across the Atlantic, the HSE stressed that there would be no delay in turnaround times.

This is not the first controversy to embroil the HSE in recent years. (Credit: Rolling News)

The latest scandal to highlight the ineptitude of health service:

Whilst many of the faces atop the Irish healthcare system have changed over the previous months, one constant remain, an astounding ineptitude.

Bernard Gloster just this month assumed the position of head of the HSE, which commands an exorbitant salary of over €420,000, a sum more than double the annual earnings of the Taoiseach.

His predecessor, Paul Reid, who was in situ for the non-compliance offences which occurred at the Coombe lab, is now enjoying the perks of early retirement from the civil service which include a handsome €50,000 pension per annum.

Cervical check scandal Ireland

Furthermore, the former CMO, Dr Tony Holohan, just this week announced the publishing of his own memoirs which will focus largely on his handling of the government’s pandemic response, with the extent to which he discusses his role in the 2018 cervical check scandal still unknown.

It is this 2018 cervical check scandal which still rankers with many, a gross form of incompetence which manifested itself on a grandiose scale, resulting in the misdiagnosis of 162 women who had been incorrectly told they did not have cervical cancer.

The campaign to hold those within the HSE to account was led by the courageous Vicky Phelan, who spearheaded the fight to establish a tribunal to investigate the scandal.

Vicky Phealn led the campaign to hold the HSE accountable for the 2018 Cervical Check scandal. (Credit: Rolling News)

Despite these past mistakes though, the announcement of the most recent lab closure for non-compliance issues highlights that the 2018 iteration was not the result of a tainted few, but rather the consequence of a deeply polluted organisation.

Those who oversaw the 2018 scandal have been and gone, but the structural and cultural issues within the HSE remain as prevalent as ever.

The inability to learn from previous mistakes is fuelled by a culture of comfort and unaccountability, something which simply would not be accepted within contemporary private industry.

And whilst crisis appears to have been averted on this occasion, there is no proof that the HSE will take heed of this warning and implement the necessary solutions required to safeguard the cervical check programme from further turmoil.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly must immediately rectify this general malaise which surrounds the Irish health service before a repeat of the tragic events surrounding the 2018 cervical check scandal occurs.

With distrust in the HSE already prevalent, those who can influence change must do so with experience – it is the least the Irish taxpaying public deserves.

Related Links:

Public invited to celebrate Vicky Phelan’s life with her family

The life lesson Vicky Phelan taught me that I’ll cherish forever

“Extraordinary courage and integrity” – Micheál Martin leads tributes to Vicky Phelan