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Senate might delay new cervical cancer screening register

Photo: Fears Senate will delay new cancer test
It's feared women could face a two-month wait for pap test results if the Senate delays legislation for a new cervical cancer screening register.

The doctor overseeing the introduction of Australia's new cervical cancer test is warning politicians to butt out amid fears it could be delayed by the federal opposition.

From May 1, the two-yearly pap test will be replaced by an improved five-yearly cervical screening test administered by one national register, along with the bowel cancer screening program.

But that start date might be in jeopardy, with warnings that could cause chaos for pathologists and create delays for women waiting on test results.
Labor has announced a string of amendments to the legislation, several of which have been recommended by Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim, including limits on what Medicare and pharmaceutical data the register can access.

Telstra Health won the contract to run the register, and Labor is concerned about patients' sensitive medical data being handed to a for-profit company.

One of its amendments seeks to ensure only government or a non-profit can run the register.

Professor Ian Hammond, a retired gynaecological oncologist chairing the steering committee for the renewal implementation project, says politicians should stay out of it.

Legislation should not be delayed for reasons that appeared "politically motivated", he said, insisting there should be no change to the legislation.

"It's unnecessary interference by politicians with limited understanding, I think, of the impact of their actions. That's what I believe," he told AAP.

"I believe it's wrong - it's going to delay things and it's not reasonable.

"To have this delayed, I think would be potentially very difficult for women because they'll start to get major delays in getting their test results and this may cause significant anxiety."

The Australian Medical Association, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association have also raised concerns about a for-profit company running the register.

Prof Hammond insists the tender process was "robust, transparent and fair".

He is not aware of any evidence to suggest sensitive data would be safer in the hands of a non-profit organisation.

"It could be managed by the West Australian government, or the Victorian government, but they're still liable to privacy breaches, loss of information, data crashing, hacking - you name it, it can happen.

"I don't see why Telstra should be at any greater risk of that."

Telstra Health told a Senate inquiry last week that if the legislation was not passed by October 30, it could jeopardise the May 1 deadline.

Marion Saville, executive director of the Victorian Cytology Service, which competed against Telstra for the contract, told the inquiry the non-profit could deliver the register by May 1 but stressed it was critical the legislation was not delayed.

The pathology workforce will shrink from May 1 in preparation for the changes so if pap tests keep rolling in, there will not be enough people to read the results.

"This is a very important workforce management issue, and it is an important issue for women of Australia who get their smears read," Ms Saville said.

"If it starts taking six to eight weeks to get a result, people start getting worried."


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