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County Fails To Notify 185 Women Of Abnormal Health Screenings

Dr. Marcus Plescia at a February, 2017 press conference.
Lisa Worf

It took Mecklenburg County's Public Health Department several months to notify 185 women that their cervical exams came back abnormal. On Wednesday, the county's health director apologized and said they're fixing the problem, but he wouldn't say why no one caught it sooner. 

The county first learned of the problem in early January. A nurse practitioner noticed a patient hadn't received the follow-up she needed based on her cervical cancer screening and started asking questions. The problem was much larger.

The county's health director Marcus Plescia now says 185 women with abnormal pap smears were not notified of their situation. He noted the county was the provider of last resort for many of these patients.

"This is really not acceptable. This is not the way that we do business," Plescia said at a press conference. "I know this is certainly very inconvenient for the people who've been affected by it. It's also something that causes people great anxiety."   

He says a triage nurse was in charge of notifying patients between May and December of last year. She wasn't doing that in "a timely manner." Things started piling up and her supervisors didn't catch it.

"We have human error in medical practice. We have human error everywhere. We need to expect that, but we need to have checks and balances so that when those human errors occur, we catch them," said Plescia. "That's the thing that I'm very disappointed about and that I'm very concerned about is that this didn't get caught quickly and we didn't get on top of it as quickly as we needed to."

The department has notified all but twenty patients that they haven't been able to track down yet. Plescia says the tests show only minor to moderate changes that don't indicate any immediate threat of cancer, but he says some women will still need to come in for a follow-up exam. The county has a hired a gynecologist for a few weeks to perform those exams. 

Commissioners have known about the problem for a few weeks, but it became public at Tuesday night's commission meeting after the Charlotte Observer started inquiring about the situation earlier in the week.

"I can’t believe that this number of women were not notified and not given any information coming from a body that we hold accountable for the well-being of our people, and sometimes some of our weakest people," said Commissioner Vilma Leake Tuesday night.   

The commission decided unanimously to call in a third-party to review the matter.  The county also started an internal audit of the health department. Four employees involved in the problem are no longer with the county. Plescia said personnel policies do not allow him to say whether they were fired or left voluntarily.