From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris; Anne Marie McNally
The Cervical Check scandal has rumbled on for months now and at no point along that time-line has Government struck the right chord when it comes to communications on the topic.
Ministers and the Taoiseach have swung wildly like a pendulum from, on one hand appearing to offer the sun moon and stars, to on the other hand being unable to answer simple questions regarding whether or not the US labs in question still have the Cervical Check contracts.
Meanwhile what has been notably absent throughout the whole debacle is any semblance of honest emotional communication.
I don’t mean the piecemeal ‘oh we’ll make sure the women get X, Y and Z’ approach to communications (and it’s worth noting that many of those promises have either not come to fruition or have been railroaded by other interests).
I mean proper and real emotional communication which understands and empathises with the horror of the scandal, not just for the women directly impacted but for every woman out there who has been scared or confused about what this all means for them and their smear experiences.
In the initial stages of the scandal there were the attempts to calm things down by offering free additional smears to anyone who wanted one.
The problem with that is the capacity in the system to deal with such extra demand was simply not there and that is now raising its head as people either struggle to get appointments or find they are waiting an age for results – and during a delay while waiting for a medical result it is inevitable that people will become even more worried about what result they might get.
Instead, had someone in the Departments of both Health and Taoiseach convinced their politicians that the best, nay only, thing to do was to come out and say:
“Yeah, y’know what? This is scary. We’re trying our damndest to get to the bottom of it. Here’s the situation with the labs; here’s what we intend to do with the contracts and the current smears being sent for analysis.
We intend to get to the bottom of how and why this happened and ensure it won’t happen again. In the meantime the following protocols are in place and therefore we can guarantee that the screening process is as robust as is medically possible.”
‘Robust as is medically possible” is a key phrase here because it’s important to understand that despite the (understandable) outrage, the reality is that screening is just that; screening. It is not supposed to be, nor is it ever, 100% accurate.
I could point immediately to a least four close friends who’ve experienced false positives and two false negatives; myself included. These were not failings of the screening process; they are just the realities of any screening programme.
But in failing to deal with the current scandal in an honest and straight-forward way, Government has allowed misinformation and fear to permeate around this particular aspect of women’s health.
I’ve had friends contact me asking me whether they should have fresh smears done. It’s generally accompanied by some variation of ‘what’s going on in there (Leinster House) Amo?’
People are unsure what it all means for them personally. Talking in circles about audits and labs and diagnostic or non-diagnostic is all well and good when talking within the medical community but not when trying to reassure the public that the screening programme is still hugely important; has saved countless lives and will continue to do so unless it is allowed to fail because of poor handling by Government of this current situation.
What has happened, and is happening, to the women directly affected is horrendous. It is possible to acknowledge that whilst simultaneously reassuring people of the sanctity of the system.
Not in a patronising ‘ah it’ll be grand’ way but in a factual and informative way. Let people know where their smears are going. Let people know what the deal is with the US labs and whether or not they are still being used. Let people know the truth.
The Scally report which is currently underway will hopefully provide a lot of the detail but honestly, it feels like it is being used as a delaying tactic by Government when it comes to simply telling the truth.
What is to stop them telling us right now the situation with the labs?
It’s by far the most asked question. Telling us whether or not current smears are still going to the same lab is not going to somehow derail the Scally report.
That element of emotional communication is missing and it’s something that either comes naturally or it doesn’t. You either empathise and seek to tell the truth or you don’t. If everything you do is couched in trying to put a positive spin for yourself on things then you’re never going to be a successful emotional communicator.
And in failing to do so, the Government are failing the women of this country who are now struggling to keep faith in a vital screening system which should never have been undermined in the first place but whose integrity must be above reproach now more than ever.