Nurses working in GP surgeries across Northern Ireland have said patients are waiting up to four months for smear test results.
The Public Health Agency (PHA) said the backlogs have come about as a result of the pandemic, workforce shortages and general pressures on pathology services.
Acknowledging the issue, however, the PHA, which leads the region’s cervical screening programme, said it does not know how many women are affected by the delays or how long they are waiting.
It is also not known whether any women who have experienced delays in smear test results have gone on to be diagnosed with cervical cancer.
A PHA spokeswoman said: “The PHA does not have live data on lab reporting.”
The information is held by individual trusts, she said.
She said primary care staff have been made aware of delays and “should be advising women appropriately”.
Rita Devlin, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland, said: “RCN members working in general practice are extremely concerned about delays in processing the results of cervical screening tests and the anxiety this will cause to women.
“Whilst these delays derive in part from the backlog built up during the pandemic, the underlying cause is staffing shortages exacerbated by retirements and recruitment.
“This is yet another manifestation of the devastating impact of staffing shortages on patients and the wider population, and yet another illustration of why we need robust and urgent action to tackle the issue.”
One patient affected by the delay said: “I was called for my smear and was told by the nurse it could be months before I got the result.
“I wish they hadn’t called me and addressed the backlog first because once you have been for your appointment, you sit at home waiting for your results and hoping they aren’t going to be bad.
“It just seems to me it’s causing unnecessary distress for patients and is another reason why we need a properly functioning Executive back up and running.”
Alliance Party health spokeswoman Paula Bradshaw MLA said: “This is another huge concern arising from poor workforce planning and inadequate systems.
“It once again reinforces the need for transformation and improvement of health and social care systems and for an Executive to be in place urgently to prioritise this.”
The issue has come to light during Cervical Screening Awareness Week.
Smear tests do not diagnose cancer, but they are regarded as a crucial tool in helping identify women at high risk of developing cancer.
Between 2016 and 2020 in Northern Ireland, there was an average of 81 people diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and around 21 deaths per year.
The PHA spokeswoman continued: “It is really important that women continue to accept their invitation for the screening test as it could save their life.”