BreastCheck concerns being monitored

The Government is monitoring concerns that the future of breast cancer screening could be at risk over legal actions and say that medical litigation in Ireland is currently being reviewed.

The director of BreastCheck has called for a mediation forum to address false negative test concerns and possible legal actions, after 15 legal letters were received in recent weeks in the wake of the cervical cancer screening controversy.

There is growing concern that there may now be cases of breast cancer diagnosis that were missed by screening.

Fianna Fáil’s Dara Calleary raised the matter with Tánaiste Simon Coveney during leaders’ questions.

Mr Calleary said that while BreastCheck has saved thousands of women’s lives and is one of the best screening programmes in the world, the Government needs to be one step ahead and not “caught blind once again” and must guarantee that there are no other underlying issues concerning any other screening programmes.

“Professor O’Doherty [the director] is genuinely worried that if these cases are successful, it could absorb all the money from the programme and may end up jeopardising it altogether,” said the Fianna Fáil deputy leader.

“She mentioned legal costs of tens of millions of euro. She said the taxpayer will require the stopping of the screening programme, which would mean women would die unnecessarily from breast cancer.”

Arnie Hill, a consultant surgeon at Beaumont Hospital and adviser to the national cancer control plan, has also echoed Prof O’Doherty’s fears. Prof Hill has said if 100 women with breast cancer underwent a mammogram, the disease would not show in 10 of them.

The Scally scoping inquiry is looking into the inaccurate cervical cancer test results scandal and the the failure of doctors and health services to tell patients. But it will also examine other cancer screening programmes.

“We have asked Dr Scally to examine our screening programmes generally in addition to CervicalCheck in his work to ensure we correct the wrongs of the past in regard to CervicalCheck and the information flow that should have happened but did not,” the Tánaiste told the Dáil.

Mr Coveney said the Government is aware of the legal cost concerns for BreastCheck but that a review is also underway of medical litigation in Ireland: “On the legal issues that are of concern, the Taoiseach has set up a working group to examine tort law in respect of medical litigation. We will, of course, await the outcome of the review.”

Mr Coveney moved to reassure people about the test rates and success of BreastCheck, which is internationally recognised: “It is important to reinforce the point that BreastCheck statistics are impressive by international standards.

“The programme is working. We need to learn lessons from recent weeks regarding the obligation of the State to ensure that information flow is appropriate and proper and that women can gain access to information when they want it.”

Prof Doherty this week told an Oireachtas Committee that, during testing, 9.6 per 10,000 cases of breast cancer are not detected. Nonetheless, screening picks “up the vast majority” of breast cancer cases, she told TDs and senators.

Mr Coveney continued yesterday to reassure people about screening, telling the Dáil: “I wish to provide reassurance that, as far as we can see, BreastCheck is performing really well and saving lives, and it will continue to do so.”

He also confirmed to Mr Calleary that BreastCheck won’t introduce an open disclosure policy on informing patients about inaccurate results until next year. Currently, Mr Coveney noted, England is the only country in the world providing open disclosure in all its systems linked to screening.