Health expert attacks 'good news' lab report

By FRANCESCA MOLD

A new report which claims there are no major concerns about laboratories screening cervical smears has been called a "firefighting exercise dressed up as a rigorous investigation" by a public health expert.

Professor David Skegg told the Gisborne cervical cancer inquiry yesterday that the Health Funding Authority (HFA) report had been written to create an aura of "good news" and would not meet minimum standards in terms of research design.

"It was planned on the run, probably to find out if the concerns in Gisborne existed elsewhere," said Professor Skegg. "I would guess there has been strong pressure on those involved to hopefully not find a problem elsewhere."

When HFA lawyer Kim Murray asked if he was simply "nitpicking" and looking for a "gold standard" in terms of research, Professor Skegg said: "I'm not arguing for a gold standard. This wouldn't even get a bronze medal."

He said the report, compiled by HFA statistician Jim DuRose, concluded in its executive summary that there were no major concerns about the safety and wellbeing of women in terms of laboratory performance.

But Professor Skegg said that conclusion was at odds with the information contained in the report, which included recommendations from an expert group that remedial action be taken to address significant problems with several laboratories.

He also said it did not meet minimum research standards because the HFA had collected information and sent out questionnaires to laboratories before drafting the aim of the study.

"Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with research knows that you plan a study before you collect the information."

Professor Skegg said the report would not allow one to "put one's hand on one's heart and say there is no problem with these labs in 1999."

He also condemned the attitude of ethics committees which have on grounds of privacy blocked research that would have allowed evaluation of the cervical screening programme.

Because of restrictions, there had been no monitoring of the screening programme in the past 10 years, which might have led to the unnecessary deaths of 100 women, he said.

Professor Skegg is upset that the Tairawhiti ethics committee has ruled that he must obtain written consent from 51 Gisborne women with cervical cancer before he can access their medical records for a proposed study.

It was hoped the study could be presented to the inquiry, but Professor Skegg said finding the women or the next-of-kin of those who had died could take months or stymie the research altogether.

He said privacy laws were misinterpreted by ethics committees, which often gave more weight to privacy concerns than the public good.

He doubted whether the committees took into account the "pain and degradation caused by this nasty disease or imagined children left without their mother" when making their decision.

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