In May 2018, I asked CervicalCheck to make the necessary arrangements to provide that any woman who had a CervicalCheck smear test, and whose GP considered that she should have a further test as part of her reassurance, could access such a further test without charge. This decision was made in good faith to address the considerable fears of the many anxious women in Ireland, following issues which had emerged in relation to the CervicalCheck screening programme.
In the months since then, there has been a significant increase in the volume of women presenting for smear tests. This includes women who have availed of the out of cycle tests, but also a greater number of women presenting for scheduled screening. This increased level of engagement with the programme is welcome. However, the increased demand has undoubtedly put pressure on lab capacity and turnaround times.
The HSE has been working actively with the labs to manage this issue and to improve turnaround times for smear tests. In addition, the HSE is aiming to source additional screening capacity, which would improve the turnaround time of results. However, sourcing capacity and resources is a global challenge as countries start to move to primary HPV screening, which vastly reduces the requirement for cytology screening staff. The HSE is currently developing a capacity plan, which will 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.
The HSE advises that the CervicalCheck Programme has recently agreed with laboratories to prioritise those slides which originate from women who attended colposcopy, as this cohort of women are considered to have the most serious need.
The HSE also advises that the natural history of cervical cancer would indicate that the disease would normally develop over a period of 10 to 15 years. Due to this very fact, it is important that any woman of screening age attends for cervical screening each and every time she is invited to participate. The HSE has advised that in this context, a delay in the return of cervical screening results, whilst undesirable, is not necessarily dangerous and poses a very low risk to women.