NHS breast screening failure - the issues

News that up to 270 women may have died as a result of a major NHS computer error which meant 450,000 were denied breast cancer screening, is concerning.

The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt announced yesterday (May 3) that over the last nine years nearly half a million women had failed to be invited to attend their final routine breast cancer screening, which would usually take place between the ages of 68 and 71.

Scott Haslam, clinical negligence solicitor at Wake Smith, looks at the issue.

“In 2018, breast cancer is still the most common cancer in the UK.

“According to the NHS, around one in eight women are diagnosed with the disease during their lifetime.

“It has, arguably, one of the highest profiles of any form of cancer – with profilic campaigning and more and more women in the public eye speaking out about their own experiences.

“New treatments, clinical trials and, crucially, early diagnosis have all been key to reducing the number of lives claimed by the disease.

“So yesterday’s news is concerning. Mr Hunt told Parliament that the issue was caused by a "computer algorithm failure" and that it is estimated that between 135 and 270 women may have had their life shortened as a result.

“The issue has only affected England as Scotland has a different system.  Whilst Wales and Northern Ireland have a similar system, they do not appear to have been affected.

“Ministers were made aware of the issue in March following an urgent clinical review, and Mr Hunt confirmed that the problem was rectified in April 2018.  As such, anyone who falls due for breast screening after April 2018 should not be affected.”

Breast screening and how it normally works:

  • Around 1 in 8 women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime but if it's detected early then treatment is more likely to be successful.

  • As medical research suggests that the risk of developing breast cancer increases with age, women in the UK who are registered with a GP are automatically invited for screening.

  • The process usually involves the local clinical commissioning authority sending out a letter inviting eligible women to an appointment.

  • Screening is available to all women from age 50 and it is offered every three years until their 71st birthday.

  • The NHS national breast screening programme invites over 2.5 million women every year for a test.  Roughly 2 million women attend for screening each year.

Mr Hunt has confirmed that the NHS intends to contact the affected women if they are still living in the UK and are registered with a GP before the end of May 2018.

He has suggested that anyone who does not receive a letter this month is unlikely to have been affected.

The missed screening will, however, only be offered to those women aged under 72 years.  Those women will receive an appointment letter with the time and date of their appointment.

Those over the age of 72 will be offered access to a helpline to decide if it will be beneficial for them to attend screening.  The concern is that scans in older women can pick up cancers that do not require treatment.  Anyone who thinks they may be affected is advised to contact the breast screening helpline on 0800 169 2692.

Scott added: “Unfortunately, it is estimated that around 150,000 of the affected women may have already died.  Whilst the NHS intends to try and contact the next of kin of affected women, it will only contact those who missed a scan and subsequently died of breast cancer.

“An independent review is to take place.  This review will look into the number of people affected, why it happened and how best to prevent it from happening again.

“It will also examine why systems did not detect the problem sooner, whether there were warnings that should have been noticed earlier, and if ministers should have been informed earlier.

“The review will be chaired by Lynda Thomas, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, and Professor Martin Gore from the Royal Marsden Hospital - it is expected to report back in six months.

“Legally, in the event that a woman hasn’t been invited to breast screening, and that screening would have identified breast cancer at an earlier stage, individuals may be able to pursue a claim for compensation.

“Where someone wasn’t invited to breast screening but they have subsequently passed away as a result, their family may be able to bring a claim on their behalf.

“We understand that the NHS is looking to compensate those who have passed away as a result of the error, but would not recommend that anyone affected accept an offer of compensation without first contacting a medical negligence specialist for advice.”

For further information contact Scott Haslam on 0114 266 6660 or at scott.haslam@wake-smith.com

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