Delinquency at Tallaght hospital

Tens of thousands of X-rays were not reviewed by a radiologist and large numbers of patient referral letters were ignored at the ‘flagship’ Tallaght Hospital in Dublin, it has been revealed.

Almost 58,000 X-rays were not reviewed by a consultant radiologist in a four-year period up to September 2009, a whistleblower revealed, causing an unknown number of misdiagnoses. Patients at the hospital have struggled to contact help-lines to know if their X-rays were viewed by a qualified physician.

There is also significant concern around the accusation by public health specialist and ‘whistleblower’ Professor Tom O’Dowd, that a large number of letters -- which he estimated to be about 30,000 -- referring patients for hospital treatment remained unopened over the past two years.

Prof O’Dowd said the letters would have contained information about patients that may have led to cancers or neurological conditions being left undiagnosed and patients “would have a very good case for calling the hospital to account”, he said.

The hospital has denied that the referral letters were ‘unopened’ but admitted there was a ‘substantial backlog’ of some 3,500 letters. It said it was also attempting to deal with the backlog of X-rays today while an external investigation had been ordered.

It is feared the effective collapse of the key functions at the hospital could well be mirrored at others around the country.

There is pressure on the Tallaght hospital management and Minister for Health Mary Harney to quit after Minister of State Conor Lenihan admitted the revelations were “shocking” and called for “major changes in the management structures” at the hospital.

The Dail was suspended this morning amid repeated Opposition demands for a debate to clarify the situation.

But Tanaiste Mary Coughlan said some of the facts “are being disputed”. She said all the issues were under investigation by Ms Harney, who is currently on an extended trip to New Zealand.

She insisted, to repeated interruptions and heckling: “We will await the outcome of the investigation, so that we can support the facts.”

There were calls for Minister for Health Mary Harney to be recalled from New Zealand and Sinn Fein Dail leader Caoimhgin O Caolain challenged the main opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, to cancel the “pairing” arrangement for the Minister, whereby a member of the Opposition refrains from voting to balance the absence of a member of the coalition government away on junkets.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny described the revelations as the “latest catastrophe in health”. Mr Kenny said that these referrals “may in fact refer to much more serious or prevalent conditions for many people”, and he demanded that parliament sit for a debate on this issue.

He pointed out that Ms Harney was not returning from New Zealand until March 22nd. “This is another catastrophe”, Mr Kenny said. It was the “ultimate classic example of lack of accountability in this House. This is hands off Government,” he said adding that the party would move a motion of no confidence in the Minister if the Taoiseach reappointed her to the department of Health in the anticipated cabinet reshuffle.

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore described Ms Harney’s trip to New Zealand as an “abuse”.

He said: “We now have one minister who’s on a visit to New Zealand for two weeks on an itinerary.... that reads more like the Lord of the Rings trail.

“The only thing missing from it is an invitation for dinner hosted by Bilbo Baggins. And meanwhile the health service for which she is responsible for is falling apart.”

Ms Harney was implicated in a scandal which involved government figures travelling on sunshine vacations on the government jet under the auspices of the corrupt Fas employment agency.

Ms Harney controversially availed of beauty parlour treatments and other services at taxpayer expense while on one trip to NASA.

Mr Gilmore also said “people go to their doctor, their doctor refers them to a hospital and the hospital doesn’t even open the letter. And even when they do get the X-rays, the consultant radiologists doesn’t even see the X-rays and there are 14,000 patients whose X-rays have still not been looked by a consultant radiologist”.

Mr O Caolain called for the Dail to sit next week and said the problems were not confined to one hospital. “It beggars belief that Tallaght is a unique aberration,” he said, and that other hospitals did not have similar issues.

“The Taoiseach on Wednesday tried to excuse the absence of the Minister for Health and Children by saying that the St. Patrick’s Day events take place in New Zealand over the coming weekend. We now know that the Minister has been there since last Monday and proposes to be there until Sunday week, 21 March. The Taoiseach has insulted the Dail and the people and the Minister has done likewise.”

However, the coalition government used its majority to ensure the Dail adjourned for two weeks for its annual St Patrick’s Day holidays until March 23rd.

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