Patients with missed cancer diagnoses may not be told by their doctors

Patients who have had a cancer diagnosis either missed or mishandled may not necessarily have been informed as to that fact by their doctor, it has emerged.

The fallout of the case of Vicky Phelan, a Limerick mother-of-two who had her cervical cancer misdiagnosed following a screening in 2011, and who wasn’t informed until last year despite the information coming to light following a 2014 audit, is causing shockwaves.

Yesterday, 43-year-old Phelan settled a damages claim with the HSE for €2.5 million. Her cancer is now terminal. In January of this year she was given between six and 12 months to live.

Speaking outside court yesterday, she said that her case was “unforgivable” and an “appalling breach of trust”.

“There are no winners here today. I’m terminally ill and my cancer is incurable. The women of Ireland can no longer put trust in the cervical check programme,” she said.

Phelan’s misdiagnosis first came to light in 2014 following an audit of all smear tests. Separately, the same year, she underwent a second smear test which revealed she had cervical cancer.

Her doctor wasn’t told about her misdiagnosis dating from 2011 until 2016, and she herself wasn’t informed until a further year had passed.

Speaking to RTÉ Morning Ireland today, head of the National Cancer Control Programme Dr Jerome Coffey said that the cervical smear test “is not perfect”.

He argued that the clinical audit of smear tests is now more functional, with the “time factor much reduced”. Physicians are now informed “within two to three months” as to a patient’s status he said.

Asked repeatedly whether or not doctors have an obligation to tell their patients what the results are, Coffey conceded that decision is “between the physician and the patient”.

“To my knowledge all information as recent as February of this year has been communicated to treating physicians,” he said.

“I don’t have that information,” he conceded when asked how many patients had been told, rather than just their doctors.

Speaking to RTÉ DriveTime yesterday, Phelan’s solicitor Cian O’Carroll suggested that via the clinical audit it has emerged that as many as 15 more women may have had cancer diagnoses missed.

“I don’t have those figures here today,” said Coffey when asked about that issue.

All cases from 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 have been reviewed and the information is back with the treating physicians.

Asked once more whether or not patients should be told, he said:

In modern medicine, I ask patients how much information they want, and if they want it all I print it out and give it to them there and then.

“It’s important to remember that this is fundamentally a strong, well-organised, well-resourced screening programme,” he said.

“It’s important that people keep attending as it can help reduce instances of this cancer by as much as 90%.”


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