Premier Danny Williams appointed a veteran of the Newfoundland Supreme Court Thursday to oversee a judicial inquiry into erroneous tests involving hundreds of breast cancer patients.
Margaret Cameron,who has served for 15 years intheCourt ofAppeal, will begin work on the inquiry on July 3, Williams told the legislature Thursday.
The government announced last monthit would hold an inquiry, amid revelations that the error rate of hormone receptor tests— which help determine the type of treatment that a breast cancer patientshould receive— was several times higher than thought.
Eastern Health announced in 2005 that it had been having quality control problems with the hormone receptor tests, but the magnitude of the errors has become clearer through documents registered with a class action lawsuit certified last month at Newfoundland Supreme Court.
"We are committed, through this process, to ensuring that the public's confidence in this area is restored and that all necessary details are disclosed in an open and transparent manner," Williams said.
Cameron, who has been asked to deliver a final report by July 30, 2008, has been givenfreedom to examine what went wrong with Eastern Health's testing procedures.
No interference, premier vows
William said there will be no political involvement in the inquiry.
"[The commissioner will] be officially in a position to discuss the terms of reference and then, of course, a paper will be presented to cabinet, and it is my understanding, of course, that the former health ministers won't be participating in that discussion," Williams said Wednesday.
Documents filed with Newfoundland Supreme Court in a certified class action lawsuit show Eastern Health was aware last year that 317patients had received inaccurate tests, excluding them from consideration for treatment withTamoxifen, a drug that blocks the hormones that promote the growth of cancer cells.
According to an affidavit filed by Heather Predham, assistant director of quality and risk management with Eastern Health, 104 of those patients required a change in treatment, with 96 eventually being prescribed Tamoxifen.
Eastern Health temporarily shut down its lab in St. John's when it discovered errors in testing between 1997 and 2005. Retests were done in a lab at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
Last year, Eastern Health said the error rate for the tests was 10 per cent to 15 per cent, a rate that was described as normal.
However, Predham's affidavit shows that the error rate of the retested samples was about 42 per cent.
That revelation sparked a public outcry, and a political storm at the house of assembly.
Williams said the inquiry's goal is to help "make sure the system is as foolproof and as good as it can be, according to national standards."
"I recognize that there are some flaws in every system, but I think people need to have the comfort and the security to know that we are as good as the rest of the country," Williams said.
Documents obtained by CBC News show that health managers were told in 2003 about serious problems in the Health Sciences Centre laboratory, which does testing for patients across the province.
The problems, which extend well beyond hormone receptor tests, included high staff turnover, poor training and inadequate working space.
The disclosures about lab testing coincided with revelations connected to the suspension of a radiologist who worked at the Burin Peninsula Health Care Centre. A review has been completed of thousands of that radiologist's records, with physicians now being informed of their patients' results.
The Central Health authority later suspended a radiologist there amid its own review.