10 Nov 2010

Cervical cancer scandal: tests ‘misread’

The family of a woman who died from cervical cancer has won a legal battle against the medical professionals who ‘misread’ test results over a 15 year period and failed to diagnose her.

Mark Phillips has won £800,000 in compensation after suing medical professionals involved in a cervical screening laboratory for serious failings in the care given to his wife Debbie over a 15 year period.

Mr Phillips describes Debbie as “the centre of my world”. That world fell apart in February this year when Debbie died. Her death, according to medical experts, would not have occurred if those responsible for screening her smear tests had done their jobs properly.

Debbie Phillips had her cervical cancer tests 'misread'

Mark and Debbie Phillips appeared to have the perfect life. He’s a successful barrister, she was a top flight solicitor who gave up working when their first child was born. They had three happy, healthy children, a holiday home in France, a house in West London – even the odd sports car.

“I don’t want to trigger a panic but… Debbie had her smears regularly. I hope someone will go back through and start looking. I do think any lady who’s done smears there and is having symptoms, for goodness sake, go and get checked out.” Mark Phillips

But in 2006 Debbie Phillips was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was treated with chemo and radiotherapy. The cancer spread through her body, including to her lungs and brain. She died in February after a horrific and incredibly painful struggle during which she had a brain haemorrhage, went blind and became increasingly immobile.

Debbie Phillips

Debbie Phillips paid for private healthcare. She went for cervical smears regularly. Each time, the private laboratory returned the smears saying there was nothing to worry about. But after her diagnosis, a cytopathologist looked at the tests she’d had since 1990. Consultant Cytopathologist at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, Dr Peter Smith confirmed to lawyers acting for Mark Phillips that on four occasions over a 15 year period – the negative result was wrong.

In 1990 and 1999, for example, he says the smear test results should have triggered alarm and Mrs Phillips should have been referred immediately for further investigation. On 2 other occasions, Mrs Phillips should have been called back for a repeat test, he says.

Just 4 days before she died, Mrs Phillips signed a witness statement in her case against the medical professionals who missed the signs. By that time, Mrs Phillips couldn’t use her right hand, and her signature – written with her left hand – is barely legible. But the message is clear:

“I feel let down by the medical professionals involved. I think that what I have lost and what my family has lost is obvious… I was enjoying my life until this happened. I was happy. I went for my smears…. I realise that these proceedings cannot help me. However, I am doing this for my children in particular. Aged 19, 16 and 13 they are going to lose their mother. I cannot adequately express how much that hurts me. Whilst it is no substitute, any compensation will give them a better financial start than they might otherwise have, and that is why I have brought these proceedings.”

Her husband, Mark Phillips, is left trying to bring up his children alone, grieving for the woman he says he adored from the moment they met, at the Law Faculty at Bristol University in 1980.

He agreed to talk to Channel 4 News to raise awareness about cervical cancer and the charity, the Debbie Fund, he’s set up in his wife’s name. 3000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK each year. Around 1000 die. There is, as yet, no cure.

Mark Phillips told Channel 4 News:

“If any one of those smears from 1990 to 2005 had been read properly, Debbie would be here today. I probably am very angry, but I think I’m more sad. Debbie was very sad about it as well. When we found out that all these smears that Debbie had religiously gone and had, had been misread and that as a result she was dying, Debs just sat there and cried…. She trusted the medics, as you do, and she’d been let down by them.”

Channel 4 News has asked those involved whether they have reviewed their procedures in light of Debbie Phillips’ case. The laboratory has recently taken on a contract for NHS as well as private screening. In the NHS, a cervical cancer diagnosis automatically triggers an audit of previous smears. None of the defendants would talk to Channel 4 News about whether they had looked back at other women’s tests from the same period, citing “patient confidentiality”.

Mr Phillips told us:

“I’m concerned about it… I don’t want to trigger a panic but… Debbie had her smears regularly. I hope someone will go back through and start looking. I do think any lady who’s done smears there and is having symptoms, for goodness sake, go and get checked out.”

Dr Farrer-Brown, the owner of Farrer-Brown Histopathology which was later taken over by Independent Histopathology Services, and Dr John Firth, the consultant who worked there for the early period of Debbie Phillips’ testing both expressed to Channel 4 News their sadness about her “tragic” death.

Mr Phillips is reminded of his wife every day. The blue chair she used to sit in in their kitchen, increasingly her place of refuge as she became more disabled. The family photographs that cover their home. For him, thinking of the future without her is particularly hard.

“I know that things like wedding mornings are going to be desperate… Trying to help my little girls the morning they get married.

“Debbie said she was devastated she wasn’t going to see them marry and she wasn’t going to see her grandchildren. Those were the things that really hurt her more than anything else.”

Mark and Debbie Phillips on their wedding day