A UK health expert who investigated abuse at the Winterbourne care home for the disabled will lead an inquiry into the misinterpretation of cancer tests in Ireland.
Dr Gabriel Scally is an eminent individual who will bring real experience to the preliminary probe into the handling of cervical smear screening, Irish health minister Simon Harris said.
He contributed to a serious case review of Winterbourne View Hospital where staff were shown to be mistreating and assaulting adults with learning disabilities and autism.
Mr Harris said: “We need to establish the facts and we need to get answers quickly for Irish women.”
He has asked Dr Scally to give early feedback by the start of next month and a full report by the end of June.
An audit by CervicalCheck – Ireland’s national screening programme – of 1,482 women diagnosed with cervical cancer since 2008 had found potential errors in 208 cases, as tests showed no abnormality when they should have been given a cancer warning.
The majority of the 208 women – 162 – were not initially told of the outcome of the audit. Of the 208, 17 have since died.
It then emerged that a further 1,518 women with the cancer in the same period have not been audited, though health chiefs stress the number affected by potential errors in this group is likely to be lower.
The head of Ireland’s health service has faced calls to go.
Vicky Phelan, a 43-year-old mother of two from Co Limerick, took legal proceedings after a 2011 smear test which returned no abnormalities was found three years later to be incorrect.
She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014.
Mr Harris said it was a “horrific and worrying” time for women and ministers had agreed to order the scoping inquiry.
The minister said Dr Scally had experience in reviews of this type as a senior public health doctor and adviser to the UK Department of Health and the NHS.
The inquiry will independently examine details of the non-disclosure to patients relating to CervicalCheck clinical audits and the management and level of knowledge of various parties including the Health Service Executive and the Department of Health.
It will also examine the tendering, contracting, operation of the labs contracted by CervicalCheck.
An international expert panel review led by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the British Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology will review the results of screening tests of all women who have developed cervical cancer who participated in the screening programme since it was established.
This will provide independent clinical assurance to women about the timing of their diagnosis and any issues relating to their treatment and outcome, Mr Harris said.
Dr Scally said he believed he did not know anyone involved in the screening services but could not rule out the possibility.
He drew comparisons with the Northern Ireland inquiry into hyponatraemia-related deaths, in which he assisted.
Dr Scally said: “That was difficult for me to do because I knew a lot of the people involved in that.
“But I don’t think anyone would question my expert advice to that, at all.
“It will play no part in my considerations.
“My primary responsibility is to the women involved and to the population as a whole.”