Breast Cancer Screening Scandal

Recent news reports have focused on the UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s address to the UK Parliament to apologise for a breast cancer screening scandal. Caused by a sequence of information technology and data handling failures within the National Health Service, the regrettable error has left women across the country feeling anxious about their health, or that of family members and friends. If you think you may have been a victim of breast cancer screening, contact one of our expert medical negligence solicitors today for impartial advice on 01252 471 219. 

Missing Invitations

According to various sources including Sky News, the appointments system failures seem to date back to 2009 and some programming code changes in a computer algorithm. Unfortunately, the resulting IT error or oversight went undetected until January of this year (2018), when service chiefs began to notice something had gone badly wrong. Worryingly, NHS managers then began to realise that nearly half a million women aged between 68 and 71 had not received the invitations to breast screening appointments that they should have.

Early Deaths

Jeremy Hunt informed listening MPs how further analysis had revealed problems with how the computerised screening appointments system had been handling data – in particular, the ages of female patients. In total, some 450,000 women throughout England went uninvited for what should have been regular screening, designed to detect disease or pre-cancerous conditions in their early stages.

As a result, the minister intoned, as many as 270 patients may have died sooner than they would otherwise have done if the failure had not happened. Their early demise would have been due either to their having received a delayed diagnosis – or from complications that subsequently arose, along with the more intensive medical treatment usually prescribed during advanced stages of the disease.

Projected Figures

As only projected mortality figures were available, the actual death toll could be lower. According to the minister, the human cost was unlikely to be higher, though he did not exclude this more serious possibility. The projection used statistical modelling to arrive at the best estimates possible, based on previous clinical data and trends. Accordingly, Mr Hunt went on to add, the Government would order an independent review into NHS breast cancer screening.

In addition, the Department for Health has contacted the next of kin of those women who had missed their regular breast scan, developed cancer of the breast and died from the condition. If this news story affects you or a family member and you would like to receive free initial advice from a qualified solicitor, please call one of our specialist team today on 01252 471 219.

False Sense of Security

In other anecdotes, women reported concern that their breast screening appointment letter had never arrived. On querying not having been invited for their normal scan (also known as a mammogram), some women mentioned feeling lulled into a false sense of security by the seemingly standard response(s) they received at the time.

Apart from the repercussions of the scandal on women who did not receive an invitation letter, there were broader ramifications for the NHS. Health commentators questioned whether the overworked public service was able to handle the bigger picture and the results of the latest blunder. The debacle has prompted experts to ask whether the NHS can cope with changes of such magnitude. Ironically, the IT system which managed the invitations could have been compromised by a trial which was intended to enhance patient health by widening the upper and lower age guidelines.

Untested Computer Changes

Dubbed AgeX, the IT health management project was to have extended the health scans, such that women received their screening invitations from age 47 (instead of 50) to 73 (instead of 70) years. Led by Oxford University and Public Health England, the new regime produced unseen or untested results: women nearing the upper limit of the age group appeared to have inadvertently had their three-yearly scan cancelled – even if they were only members of the control (comparison) group. Thus, they lost the possibility of early cancer detection.

If caught in the initial pre-cancerous phase of the disease, breast cancer treatment regimes are usually more palatable and their outcomes more successful. However, although early treatment is preferable where cancer is present, some critics suggest that unnecessary intervention may subject patients to the premature excision of lumps that are only benign, i.e. not cancerous.

Detection and Treatment

When the detail and scale of the problem became clear, the indications suggested it would come to represent one of the biggest failures in NHS IT to date. In nature and scale, the problem has taken on particular importance, given that technology is frequently cited as a way to improve efficiency and reduce costs in a hard-pressed public service.

Figures from The Independent illustrated that of the 2,500,000 female patients invited to breast screening during 2016/17, some seventy percent attended. Medics discovered more than 18,000 cancers.

Finally, whatever the reasons for the computing glitch and the absence of timely reminders to patients, women remain worried. In one case, a patient discovered two breast lumps, later diagnosed as multiple malignant, aggressive tumours that required radical mastectomy, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hospitalisations for the side effects she suffered, including lung problems. Had the growths been discovered earlier, the treatment might not have been as hard to bear. Health service managers apologised wholeheartedly and acknowledged the distress caused.

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