One of the lawyers working on a proposed class action lawsuit against the Miramichi Regional Hospital says he's concerned by the length of time it took the Horizon Health Network to decide to inform the public about the use of equipment that hadn't been properly sterilized in biopsy procedures.

Last August, Horizon Health announced that forceps used in biopsies at the Miramichi hospital's colposcopy clinic as far back as 1999 may not have been properly sterilized.

A colposcopy is a diagnostic procedure used to closely examine a woman's cervix, vagina and vulva for signs of disease, such as cancer. It is often performed if a Pap test has come back with abnormal results.

Miramichi Regional Hospital

Equipment used in the colposcopy clinic at Miramichi Regional Hospital may not have always been adequately sterilized. (CBC)

Almost 2,500 women were advised to get tested for hepatitis B, C and HIV.

However, last week the Canadian Press reported on documents obtained through the province's Right to Information Act showing that Horizon Health waited for almost three months before notifying the public.

The health authority said it is comfortable with the time it took to inform the public. Horizon said it needed the time to assess the risk to patients, determine how long the practice of inadequate sterilization had been going on, and determine what tests those affected should undergo.

Halifax-based lawyer Ray Wagner says it took hospital officials too long to alert the public.

He says the authority's decision to delay notification of the public could eventually play a part in his proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of potential victims.

'If it's deemed at the end of the day by a judge to be inappropriate in terms of the delays, then that can aggravate the damages.' - Ray Wagner, lawyer

"If it's deemed at the end of the day by a judge to be inappropriate in terms of the delays, then that can aggravate the damages," said Wagner. "In other words, damages that would otherwise be ordered could be increased because of that factor."

Wagner says 22 women have signed up so far as potential litigants in the class-action lawsuit.

"We were obviously concerned about that — the fact that we had such a long period of time, so many years, where there was not, as far as we can tell, an audit of the sterilization program," said Wagner.

"And then when you couple that with the delay in the notifying people of the concerns that they should have with respect to medical concerns, that was very concerning for us."

Wagner says he's now gathering opinions from medical experts.

Sterilization kills 'all forms of germs'

A Horizon Health spokesperson said the health authority has no comment because the matter is before the courts.

When the issue was revealed in August, Horizon indicated the forceps were not always sterilized in accordance with the North American standard that has been in place for more than 50 years.

In some cases, the instruments were put through a high-level disinfection process instead of sterilization.

High-level disinfection is a process used to kill "most germs" from medical instruments that come into contact with mucus membranes or blood. It is achieved through various processes, such as pasteurization or by using chemical products.

Sterilization is a process used to remove or kill "all forms of germs," by using steam, gas, or chemicals.

High-level disinfection destroys 99.99 per cent of blood-borne pathogens such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV, stressed an official from Horizon at the time of the announcement.

The equipment was sterilized the night before colposcopy clinics, but because there weren't enough forceps available to meet demand during clinics, a practice evolved of using high-level disinfection during clinic days to "reprocess" the equipment and get it back in service to meet demand, authority CEO John McGarry said in August.