Health secretary says computer errors led to 450,000 missed screenings since 2009
Women’s lives may have been cut short by a major IT error which meant 450,000 patients in England missed crucial breast cancer screenings, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has said.
Experts fear as many as 270 women may have died because of the 2009 computer error, he said.
Families now face the distressing possibility that loved ones who have recently died from breast cancer may have missed opportunities for early diagnosis. Women receiving breast cancer treatment, including those with a terminal diagnosis, may also receive letters informing them of missed screenings in the coming months.
The government has ordered an independent inquiry into the scandal, which Public Health England (PHE) only unearthed in January after almost a decade of errors, Hunt said.
He said between 135 and 270 women “may have had their lives shortened as a result” of the missed letters, which are due to be sent out automatically to older women registered with their GPs.
He said the numbers may be considerably lower, but that statistical modelling suggested there were “likely to be some people in this group who would have been alive today if this had not happened”.
Hunt told the House of Commons that because of a computer algorithm failure an estimated 450,000 women aged between 68 and 71 were not invited to their final breast screening between 2009 and the start of 2018.
He said the error was a serious failure of the screening programme.
He apologised “wholeheartedly and unreservedly for the suffering caused”, and said: “Tragically there are likely to be some people in this group who would have been alive today if this failure had not happened.”
Of the women who missed screenings, 309,000 were still alive and would be contacted before the end of May, and the first 65,000 notifications would be sent out this week, he said. The letters will tell women under 72 that they will automatically be sent an invitation for a catchup screening, and those 72 and over will be given access to a helpline to decide whether a screening is appropriate, he said.
Hunt said his department would contact the families of women who had died of breast cancer and whom it believed had missed a screening, to apologise, and offer a process to establish whether the missed scan led to shortening of their life. “We recognise this will be incredibly distressing for some families,” he said.
Family members would have their concerns investigated and compensation may be payable if the error is found to have led to an earlier death, he said. The regular screenings offered to women who are most at risk of developing the disease mean signs of early cancer development can be picked up before they notice the symptoms.
Many families will be “deeply disturbed by these revelations”, he said, especially those recently diagnosed with breast cancer or those who were recently bereaved. “For them and others, it is incredibly upsetting to know that you did not receive an invitation to screening at a correct time and totally devastating to hear you may have lost or be about to lose a loved one because of administrative incompetence.”
The issue came to light because of an upgrade to the IT system for the breast screening invitation programme. Dr Jenny Harries, PHE’s deputy medical director, said the body was “very sorry for these faults in the system”.
“We have carried out urgent work to identify the problem and have fixed it. Additional failsafe systems have been introduced to ensure the problem does not reoccur,” she said.
Hunt said the inquiry would establish how many people were affected, why the error occurred and how it could be prevented in future. It would also examine why it took nearly a decade to pick up the problem and whether ministers were informed early enough. The inquiry will be chaired by Lynda Thomas, the chief executive of Macmillan cancer support and Prof Martin Gore, consultant medical oncologist at the Royal Marsden. It will review the entire breast screening programme and report back in six months.
“Irrespective of when the incident started, for many years oversight of our screening programme has not been good enough,” Hunt said.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said Hunt must give assurances that checks were being carried out to make sure that no one was missing out on screenings for other cancers. “Eight years is a long time for an error of this magnitude to go undetected,” he said, saying ministers must investigate whether early warning signs were missed.
Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, said she was shocked by the implications of the error, saying more than 18,000 cancers were detected as a result of the breast screening programme which might not have been detected as early otherwise.
“The priority should not be to establish blame, but to put measures in place to invite those women affected for screening, where appropriate; to ensure there are enough resources in the system to cope with any additional demand that might follow as a result; and to take steps to ensure this never happens again. In the meantime, we urge women not to panic and await further information.”
Emma Greenwood, the director of policy and public affairs at Cancer Research UK, said women concerned about whether they had missed a screening should consult the NHS Choices website which has the option to contact your local unit to book an appointment, she said.
The Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, a former health minister, said it was essential the review investigated the use of algorithms in healthcare, saying they should be “closely monitored to ensure that we can fully trust the technology to operate in the interests of patients”.