A local patients’ advocate has warned that the hepatitis C scare - which has resulted in more than 450 former public hospital patients being offered screening after it emerged they may have been treated by a surgeon infected by the virus - may further rock public confidence in an “already shaky” HSE led health service.
Mary Tierney, a volunteer with the national patient advocacy group Patient Focus, says this latest incident is “unacceptable” and is like “history repeating itself”.
“We’ve had MRSA, unanswered letters, unread x-rays, missed cancers and misdiagnoses and now we have this hepatitis C scare. What is going to happen next?
“I hope all patients were contacted in an appropriate manner. We in Patient Focus are concerned about the time it took [the HSE knew about the healthcare worker’s condition last July]. If it takes 10 months to check who came into contact with this doctor then that is very shocking. It shocks me as a patient and a volunteer. Time is of the essence, time is life and information is power.
“Think of those who have been written to, how they feel? I hope they will be given support and counselling. From a patient’s point of view these people may have been put at unnecessary risk. We as patients have health concerns as it is. We are putting ourselves in the hands of professionals who have taken an oath to do us no harm.”
Ms Tierney, who lives in Castlegar, says while health officials say the risk to former patients is very low, this is little consolation to those who are worried.
“The HSE says there is very little risk but once you mention risk to a vulnerable person they are worried. Patients admitted to hospital are told about the risks of anaesthetic and the risks of this, that and the other. But they are not told a healthcare worker may have hepatitis C.
“Patients have no-one to turn to, doctors and nurses have their unions and senior management. If one [a patient] asks a question and insists on attention to detail they are sometimes viewed by professionals as a complainer or a difficult patient. I’d rather be a live complainer than a dead victim!”
Some 457 former patients of Galway University Hospitals, Mayo General and Letterkenny General hospitals have been asked to attend for precautionary Hepatitis C screening, according to the HSE West. A further nine former patients of the Bon Secours hospital in Renmore have also been requested to have the blood test as have 15 former patients of the Galway Clinic at Doughiska.
Mr James Sheehan, the founder of the clinic, says the risk to former patients is “extremely low”. He says the surgeon in question did not perform any procedures at the private hospital and was working purely in an assistant capacity to one of the facility’s visiting orthopaedic surgeons.
A spokesperson for the HSE West says letters were posted out to its patients last Friday.
“This is being done as a result of a diagnosis of Hepatitis C in a healthcare worker who worked at three hospitals in HSE West. The healthcare worker concerned was involved in a number of surgical procedures at Galway University Hospitals, Mayo General Hospital and Letterkenny General Hospital between 2004 and 2008. While the risk to patients is considered to be very low, screening is good practice and will allow patients to be reassured of their own safety. The public health department of the HSE West is implementing a process to follow up on 457 patients who were operated on during that time and have been identified as requiring screening.
“In accordance with best practice, the hospitals have carried out a detailed review of all patient records to identify the patients who require follow up. A single blood test is being offered to these patients, to rule out infection, which may be carried out by their GP or at a dedicated HSE West clinic. Results will be returned to patients and their GPs as quickly as possible but no later than seven days after the test. This is a very fast time frame and additional resources have been out in place to enable this. If you do not receive one of these letters inviting you for a blood test you have not been identified as being in need of screening.”
Some 58 people have contacted the HSE helpline set up for concerned former patients.
Dr Breda Smyth, public health specialist, HSE West, says this number is “relatively low”.
“We hope and assume that people have been reassured that the risk of transmission from a healthcare worker to a patient is very remote.
“Nonetheless as a precaution national guidelines recommend follow-up of such patients. The management of the three hospitals have been working closely on this review with the Department of Public Health in HSE West and with the Health Protection Surveillance Centre. We intend to complete the review in a very short time frame and are very confident that any risk to patients is very low indeed.
“The HSE West sincerely regrets the worry that reviews like this can cause but they are carried out with patients’ best interest in mind. We will make sure the review is carried out swiftly and efficiently and that we provide clear and accurate information to everyone affected.”
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames says Health Minister Mary Harney and the medical council must introduce an annual blood test for all surgical staff.
“Where a hospital discovers that a member of the surgical staff has a disease that can potentially damage patient health, a different role would have to be found for him/her within the hospital, one where they would not conduct surgery or pose any risk to patient health.
“The patient must be able to reliably trust that the care they get is safe and of the highest professional standard.”
Hepatitis C is a virus which can affect the liver. Healthcare workers may contract it from infected patients during their work. People have also become infected through infected blood or blood products and sharing needles among injecting drug users. Blood and blood products are now screened so that the chance of getting the infection in this way is very unlikely. The risk of acquiring the infection from an infected healthcare worker is very low, according to the HSE West.