The government’s surprise decision to postpone the roll-out of the National Cancer Screening Register has thrown pathology labs into chaos, and look set to delay test results further.
With many cytologists set to leave their jobs in the next few months, the announcement that the renewal of the cervical cancer screening program, which was set to start on May 1, will be delayed indefinitely has caught stakeholders out of the blue.
Despite being the director of the biggest cervical cancer screening laboratory in Australia, Adjunct Professor Annabelle Farnsworth said her team was only notified of the delay late on Tuesday.
“We haven’t been kept in the loop and for months we have been writing to the government and being ignored,” she said.
Worse than the delay, the government provided no details on when the rollout would be, or a plan on how to manage the delay, according to Professor Farnsworth.
From a workflow perspective, this was disastrous, she said.
The biggest impact from a GP and patient point of view would be an increase in the turnaround time for test results, Professor Farnsworth said.
Already there are delays to the test results of up to two weeks, in part due to a shrinking workforce in preparation for the new screening program.
But this may be set to worsen, with many scientists expecting to be out of a job by May.
“This has been a very big program, transitioning from one form of testing to another,” Professor Farnsworth said.
“The original public announcement was in April 2014, and since then we have spent millions of dollars on new equipment and hundreds of thousands of dollars on new computer systems to drive the new program; we have had to manage our staff retrenchment and offered redundancies. All that time and effort is now in turmoil.”
Commonwealth chief medical officer Professor Brendon Murphy explained the delay was due to the “complexity of assimilating and migrating data from eight state and territory cancer registers into one register”.
Other factors, including a pause during the federal election and delays passing legislation for the register, were also to blame, he said.
Until the national register was coordinated, the new cervical screening test could not be introduced, Professor Murphy said.
While it was not clear exactly when the register will be up and running, he said the health department was committed to introducing it as early as possible this year.
But the announcement seems to have come at an unfortunate time, with a growing Change.org petition illustrating community concern that the new screening program will put women at risk.
The petition, which has almost 70,000 signatures, has grown in response to the perception that government is cutting funds from women’s services, and that this change will undermine Australia’s already successful cervical screening program.
Cancer Council CEO Sanchia Aranda stressed the importance of business as usual, by ensuring women get a pap smear every two years until the new system is officially under way.