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Wednesday, July 29, 1998 Published at 17:03 GMT 18:03 UK


Thousands call cancer scare hotline

St George's Hospital: Possible errors in the colposcopy service

Thousands of women at risk of cervical cancer have phoned a hospital helpline set up in the wake of the latest screening scare.

Correspondent, Fergus Walsh: "Experts say current treatment is much improved"
St George's in Tooting, South London, has recalled more than 1,000 patients amid fears of grave errors in its screening programme.

A spokeswoman for the hospital trust said: "The helpline has received more than 2,000 calls, mainly from women wanting reassurance that they were not on the list."

Some 350 patients have now arranged new tests after contacting the hospital.

An inquiry at the hospital revealed that at least one woman died of cervical cancer after being given the all-clear by the service.

St George's is now bracing itself for a flood of compensation claims from patients who were wrongly treated.

All the women already had moderate or severe abnormalities detected by a standard smear test.

BBC Health Correspondent Richard Hannaford reports
The possible errors occurred at the next stage when they underwent a more detailed cervical examination in the hospital's colposcopy clinic, carried out by Mr Graham Barker.

Independent appraisal

Two independent experts were asked by St Georgeís to review the cases of 19 of Mr Barkerís patients who had cancer. They were seen by him between 1989 and 1996.

The experts found that his treatment of eight cases had been sub-standard, and in four there was cause for concern.

[ image: 4.5 million smears are examined by pathology laboratories each year]
4.5 million smears are examined by pathology laboratories each year
They also regarded a method used by Mr Barker to remove pre-cancerous cells as unreliable.

His judgement was called into question after another consultant at the hospital began seeing women who had been given the all clear by the clinic and had subsequently gone on to develop cancer.

Hospital concern

The hospital stresses that no method of detecting cancer is 100% accurate.

Andrew Dillon, chief executive of the hospital, warned other hospitals in the NHS needed help to review their services. Mr Dillon expressed his regret about the anxiety the recall will cause women, but was confident the hospital was doing the right thing.

[ image: Dr Andrew Dillon: Regret and sympathy]
Dr Andrew Dillon: Regret and sympathy
He said: "We very much regret that this is having to happen, but we think it is the right thing to do to make absolutely certain the care that women receive is appropriate."

Mr Barker has agreed to withdraw from all clinical activity at the Trust until the recall is completed.

But he insisted his techniques were safe and blamed the alert at St George's Hospital in south London on a "vendetta" against him by health chiefs following a row with a consultant colleague.

Mr Barker said: "I can totally reassure them that my techniques are safe and I await the results of a proper audit at St George's."

A spokeswoman for the Trust said it was preparing itself for compensation claims from women who were wrongly given the all clear and have since gone on to develop cervical cancer.

She added: "If any women are found to have cancer we would expect them to pursue it and they should contact their solicitor."

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "We are certainly aware of the situation and are glad that [the Trust is] acting speedily to allay women's concerns."

Recent screening scares

St George's is the latest centre to be investigated for faulty screening.

[ image: BBC Health Correspondent Fergus Walsh with a colposcope used to look at the cervix]
BBC Health Correspondent Fergus Walsh with a colposcope used to look at the cervix
At the Kent and Canterbury Hospital, 90,000 smears were rechecked two years ago after five women developed serious cancers. A further 300 required urgent treatment.

An inquiry found widespread flaws in the screening operation.

Despite these worries, the screening programme has had great success in helping to reduce the number of deaths from cervical cancer - down about 40% on 1979.

St George's Hospital has issued a freephone number for women who may be concerned about their health: 0800 3286905.

In a separate development in South Wales, it has been revealed that 14 women developed cancer after they were wrongly told that their cervical smear tests were normal four years ago.

Two of the women have since died, and twelve others have undergone new treatment.

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