The unprecedented demand for cervical screening in 2018 has undoubtedly put pressure on laboratory capacity and led to the long delays that are being experienced in smear test turnaround times.
This increased level of engagement with the programme is welcome. However, the increased demand has undoubtedly put pressure on lab capacity and the HSE has been working actively with the labs to manage this and to improve turnaround times for smear tests. The HSE reports that laboratories have agreed to undertake additional recruitment, provide for overtime and manage annual leave in an effort to minimise the backlog.
In addition the HSE is aiming to source additional screening capacity, which would improve the turnaround time of results. The HSE advises that sourcing capacity and resources is a serious global challenge as countries start to move to primary HPV screening, which vastly reduces the requirement for cytology screening staff and is resulting in staff understandably seeking opportunities in other fields. This has limited the HSE’s ability to source additional laboratory capacity and so improve turnaround times.
The provision of these out of cycle smears ceased on the 31st of December 2018. Stabilisation of the programme, and addressing the backlog, are key priorities, and particularly so in the context of the introduction of the HPV test as the primary screening test. However, we should be clear that this backlog will take some time to resolve.
The HSE is currently developing a capacity plan to take account of available capacity and expected demand, with the aim of bringing the programme into stabilisation this year. This is a priority concern for my Department and the HSE.
In relation to the detail requested by the Deputy, I have asked the HSE to respond directly to him.