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Misreported or delayed smear test results could have potentially tragic consequences

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The BBC reported recently that thousands of women in the West Midlands could be affected by 10-week delays in getting their smear test results due to a backlog that has built up after Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust took over the service. The national target for the return of cervical screening results is within 14 days.

The Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust took over the screening service for Stoke-on-Trent, Birmingham, Coventry, Herefordshire and Worcestershire in April 2019, transferring laboratory screening services to a newly built facility on the New Cross Hospital site.

It is hoped that the Trust will achieve return of results within two weeks by the end of February 2020, and NHS England have assured the public that they are working hard to minimise any delay and are expected to be back on track shortly. However, nationally, there have been problems with delays in cervical screening results, with targets not being met since 2015.

Even if results are returned within the national guidelines, misreporting also remains a serious issue. The tragic consequences of a failure to diagnose cancer, either through computer, administrative or human error, was highlighted by the widely reported death of Julie O’Connor only a year ago in February 2019. Mrs O’Connor died from cervical cancer despite having had six ’negative’ smear tests at Southmead Hospital in Bristol.

Shoosmiths handled a similar case where our client was in her early 30’s when she was eventually correctly diagnosed with cervical cancer. Our client knew that, due to the misdiagnoses which prevented her early treatment, her life expectancy was limited and tragically she died in hospital at only 34 years of age.

These repeated delays in results that prevent early treatment (so vital in dealing with cancer) and misdiagnosis or misreporting are not just recent episodes. As far back as 1995 eight women died as a result of misreporting of tests at Kent and Canterbury Hospital. However, less well publicised, but equally harrowing, is the plight of those women who survived and whose families are forced to live with the consequences.  As a result of systemic or human failures in misreporting or delaying test results, many women and their families have been caused needless, life-long distress, suffering and pain.

Sharon Banga, an associate in Shoosmiths medical negligence team, commented;

‘Although it is reported that the delays in West Midlands results are unlikely to have a clinical impact, the stress, anxiety and uncertainly for women will certainly have an impact on their mental health and well-being and some may be put off going for subsequent tests. Delays in results also mean that women can no longer assume, as many may have done, that ‘no news is good news.'

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