Around 17,000 patients will have their cervical cancer screening test results reviewed after concerns were raised about laboratory ‘performance’.
The major review will involve tests dating back to 2008, after senior laboratory staff notified Northern Ireland’s Southern Trust management team that they ‘had concerns about performance in some steps of their laboratory’s screening system’.
To investigate these concerns, the trust commissioned the Royal College of Pathologists to undertake an independent assessment of its cervical screening services from 1 January 2008 and October 2021.
The assessment report published yesterday (9 October) 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.
The trust said it will review the records of around 17,000 patients screened during the period in question ‘as a precautionary measure’ in order to ‘look again for abnormalities to double check that the correct information was provided’.
A spokesperson for the trust said: ‘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 is writing to all women whose records will be reviewed with further information. There is no need for women to contact their GP to make an appointment for a smear test unless they have recently received an invitation to attend for one as part of the routine screening programme.’
Dr Stephen Austin, medical director for the Southern Trust, said: ‘This report has identified performance issues in our laboratory and we have been working with colleagues in the Public Health Agency (PHA) on a series of actions to improve both service provision and oversight.
‘The Southern Trust is very conscious of the anxiety this report may cause to women. As medical director, I apologise on behalf of the trust for what has happened.
‘Today we are issuing personal letters to all of the women potentially affected. The vast majority of women screened by the Southern Trust over this period will be unaffected and therefore if you do not receive a letter from us, your records have not been identified as needing review.’
Dr Joanne McClean, director of public health at the PHA, urged women who are invited for cervical screening to attend their appointment as normal.
She said: ‘Cervical screening has proven to be very effective at detecting early abnormalities which, when treated, can prevent cancer and save lives. It will continue to do so if those who are eligible attend for screening when invited.
‘A cancer could also develop between screening tests, or there is a small chance that the test misses some changes to your cervix.
‘No matter what age you are, if you are concerned about symptoms such as abnormal bleeding, or pain or discomfort in the lower pelvis, you should seek advice from your GP, even if you attend regularly for screening.’
In England, the proportion of women who have never had cervical screening, or are not up to date with their tests, is the highest in 10 years, the NHS warned at the beginning of this year.
NHS England also warned that privately bought at-home testing kits for HPV should not be used to make decisions about cervical screening.