When Mecklenburg County leaders acknowledged that two health clinics did not notify women about abnormal Pap smears, they insisted the failures were caused by one nurse.
But an investigation by the North Carolina Board of Nursing has found no wrongdoing by Natalie Nicholson and cast blame on “systemic” problems in the county’s Health Department.
The board licenses nurses statewide and disciplines them for misconduct. Nicholson resigned under pressure from her job with Mecklenburg County, but the state board’s decision allows her to keep her nursing license.
“There were issues beyond the nurse’s control,” said David Kalbacker, a spokesman for the Board of Nursing.
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Mecklenburg County did not make officials available for an interview and did not answer most of the written questions submitted by the Observer. Officials did issue a written statement Tuesday.
“Systemic problems within Public Health have been identified over the last several months and are being addressed through the Public Health Transformation Plan,” the statement said. “Public Health now has staff in place to ensure that patients are properly notified per public health protocol.”
After receiving inquiries from the Observer in February, County Manager Dena Diorio acknowledged that county clinics on Beatties Ford Road in west Charlotte and Billingsley Road in southeast Charlotte failed to notify at least 185 women about abnormal Pap smears from April of 2016 to December.
Pap tests help identify signs of possible cervical cancer. Early detection and treatment are considered key to prevention.
Then-Health Director Marcus Plescia and other county leaders repeatedly said the issue was mainly caused by one nurse who did not perform her duty to notify patients about their results. Plescia also said her supervisors practiced poor oversight and insisted the clinics were performing well overall. Plescia resigned amid the fallout.
But records obtained and published by the Observer, showed that Nicholson and others had warned officials there were problems notifying patients about their risks for cervical cancer.
Reports released in recent months from two consulting firms and the county’s internal audit office detailed chronic problems in the agency. Criticism included workers failing to put accurate information in patients’ files, patients enduring unacceptably long waits for appointments and other lapses in care.
The reports recommended sweeping changes to management, saying that top leaders and supervisors failed to hold employees accountable.
Nicholson could not be reached for comment.