NHS error could be to blame for up to 270 deaths

It’s estimated that between 135 and 270 in the UK may of died or had their lives shortened because of an error involving NHS computer systems. Women in the UK between the ages of 50 and 70 are automatically invited for breast cancer screening every three years. However, due to an algorithm error, around 450,000 women aged 68-71 weren’t invited for these screening appointments between 2009 and the beginning of this year.

Public Health England (PHE) reported the error, and the health secretary Jeremy Hunt has now announced there will be an inquiry into the failings. “At this stage it is unclear whether any delay in diagnosis will have resulted in any avoidable harm or death. Tragically, there are likely to be some people in this group who would have been alive today if the failure had not happened,” he said.

An independent review will be carried out by Lynda Thomas chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, and Martin Gore, professor of cancer medicine at the Institute of Cancer Research and a consultant medical oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital. The results of the review are expected to be released in six months.

The algorithm failure has now been identified and fixed, and the 309,000 women affected will now been sent invitations to “catch up” screening appointments. Women who are over the age of 72 now will be offered advice from a helpline to see if screening is still appropriate for them. Letters will go out to the women later this month.

Health officials will also be contacting relatives of those women who missed their screening appointments due to the error, and subsequently died of breast cancer. The officials will apologise for the error and establish if it was the cause of their death. In cases where the error was to blame, the NHS may be required to offer compensation. Jeremy Hunt added: “We recognize this will be incredibly distressing for some families.”

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners said: “We are shocked to learn that hundreds of thousands of women in England have missed out on their opportunity for breast screening. We welcome the independent inquiry into this matter, announced today, but 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.”

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