Nearly 1,000 women telephoned an emergency helpline yesterday after senior hospital staff admitted that up to 700 women may have been wrongly told their cervical smear tests were negative.
Around 70,000 women, who were screened at Kent and Canterbury Hospital, will have their most recent tests rechecked after staff revealed they had discovered a mistake in the screening process during a routine audit last September.
All 70,000 hospital slides are being sent to screening centres at Manchester and Birmingham and it will be months before the rechecking results are known.
Kate Neales, a consultant gynaecologist, said: "What we did was look at a group of women who had a positive smear and we then went back and looked at their previous smear tests which had been reported as negative. When this retrospective check was undertaken it was possible to identify abnormal cells on some of those previous smear tests."
This meant that some women could have been identified earlier as having an abnormality. Samples of almost 11,000 smear tests were sent away to separate laboratories and of those 89 were found to be positive.
The smear test, in which cells from the cervix are analysed, does not detect cancer, but detects whether there are any potential problems which require further investigation. Early detection of pre-cancerous cells leads to early treatment and survival rates of around 80 per cent.
Women aged 20 to 64 are invited to have a smear test at least once every five years. The Cervical Screening Programme, set up in 1988 and costing pounds 100m a year, was the first of its kind in Europe and nationally eight out of 10 women now have regular smear tests.
Recent figures showed that the number of cervical cancer deaths is falling, from 1,485 in 1993 to 1,369 in 1994. The cancer screening programme estimates the death rate is falling by 7 per cent each year.
But there have been a number of incidents where results have been mistaken and last year 2,000 patients had their records recalled after it emerged that a radiotherapy machine at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, had been used on the wrong setting for 17 years.
Ann Farebrother, consultant in public health medicine for East Kent Health Authority which covers the Kent and Canterbury Hospital, said: "No screening programme is 100 per cent accurate. The success rate of picking up abnormal smears is between 85 to 95 per cent."
Edward Pearson, chief executive of the hospital trust, who described the mix-up as a "high profile and emotional issue", said he did not know how much the re-testing was likely to cost.
He said that all the women concerned would be written to over the next two weeks informing them of the review.
n Women in the Canterbury and Thanet area who had smear tests between 1990 and 1995 can ring the helpline on 01227 766016.Reuse content