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Monday, March 29, 1999 Published at 18:21 GMT 19:21 UK


Doctor 'had breakdown' over smear blunders

Some slides showing cancer were not picked up

A scientist who tried to draw attention to flaws in the cervical screening programme at Kent and Canterbury Hospital suffered a nervous breakdown when his efforts repeatedly fell on deaf ears.

The efforts of chief biomedical scientist Neil Woodward to head off a potential scandal are featured in the BBC television programme Disaster: A Cancer in the System.

Eight women died after developing cancer despite being given the all clear by Kent and Canterbury Hospital, and dozens more have undergone hysterectomies.

In total, 90,000 slides have had to be re-examined because of errors in the screening programme.

Dr Woodward joined the staff of Kent and Canterbury Hospital's cytology department in January 1993.

He soon noticed that there was a problem with the way that the laboratory was screening cervical smear slides.

Staffing levels were inadequate and routines for checking slides seriously flawed.

Repeated attempts

[ image: Neil Woodward had serious concerns about the test programme]
Neil Woodward had serious concerns about the test programme
Dr Woodward first went to the hospital consultants who were responsible for the overall management of the screening programme to discuss his concerns.

But they seemed uninterested in his fears.

Dr Woodward eventually went outside the cytology unit - a serious breach of management etiquette - to a pathology department manager, Val Crafter.

But when she raised the issue with the clinicians, they were furious that Dr Woodward had gone outside the department.

Over the following years, Dr Woodward attempted to bring problems with the cervical screening programme to the attention of the hospital consultants and management, without success.

He was deeply concerned that staffing levels at the unit meant that screeners were working at their microscopes for far longer than the recommended four hours a day.

A hospital policy of recalling women every three years, instead of every five, had added significantly to their workload, and led to a serious backlog of unprocessed slides.

Dr Woodward was left to cope with angry GPs who threatened to withdraw work from the laboratory unless the work was done more quickly.

In addition, much of the screening equipment was out of date.

Dr Woodward knew that pre-cancerous smears were being missed, and that women were at risk.

He kept a detailed log of the mistakes made, but could find no-one in authority who would listen to his fears.

To prove his case he worked later and later, re-examining thousands of slides that had passed through the laboratory.

Eventually, the pressure led to Dr Woodward suffering a nervous breakdown.

On returning to the hospital after two months he continued with his attempts to expose the poor practice in the laboratory.

Serious problems

Eventually, in late 1995 Dr Woodward discovered a batch of slides in which the screener had erroneously diagnosed the smears of six women as normal.

He was criticised by consultants at the hospital for dealing with the problem without first consulting them.

Eventually Dr Woodward got the attention of Mark Winter, newly appointed head of Pathology.

Winter ordered outside tests to confirm Dr Woodward's assertions that the screeners were possibly missing cases of cancer.

Outside sources confirmed that there were serious problems.

But before the hospital could release the information in a controlled manner, the details were leaked to the Daily Express.

In February 1996 Kent and Canterbury hospital was forced to admit that its cervical screening programme was in serious trouble.

Disaster: A Cancer in the System is broadcast on BBC Two on Monday 29 March at 19:00 GMT.

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