Approximately 55,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK, and therefore the importance of regular breast screening in women over the age of 50 is crucial to prevent, or ensure early diagnosis of, the disease.
On 2 May 2018, the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Jeremy Hunt, announced that there had been a serious failure in the English breast screening programme. This led to an Independent Breast Screening Review in 2018 to identify both the extent and the cause of the failings, resulting in women not being called for their routine breast screening appointments.
Wolferstans were recently instructed by a 69-year-old lady, who was not called for her routine breast screening appointments at the Sandwell Breast Screening Clinic when she should have been. She suffered a delay in diagnosis of breast cancer, which may have otherwise been detected at a much earlier and possibly pre-cancerous stage. An earlier diagnosis would likely have resulted in less aggressive treatment and a more positive long-term prognosis.
Jeremy Hunt addressed the UK Parliament to apologise for the breast cancer screening error. Following a detailed independent review, it was identified that an IT glitch was the cause of the failure to call women across the UK for breast screening within 36 months of their previous screening, until they reached the age of 71 years old. This was caused by a sequence of information technology and data handling failures within the National Health Service, through NHS Digital, Public Health England and NHS England. The error left women across the country feeling anxious about their health, or that of family members and friends.
MPs were told how further analysis had revealed problems with how the computerised screening appointments system had been handling data. It was initially estimated that 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, although over the past 2 years it is estimated that the number of affected women is lower than the initial projection.
Mr Hunt warned that as many as 270 patients may have died sooner than they would otherwise have done as a result of the failure, due to either a delayed diagnosis or from complications that subsequently arose, along with the more intensive medical treatment usually prescribed during advanced stages of the disease.
Following the Independent Breast Screening Review 2018 it was identified that there had been “A complex IT problem with the breast screening invitation system has led to some women not being invited for their final screen between their 68th and 71st birthdays…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.”
The investigation identified that there was no strategic oversight to ensure that the separate strands of the breast screening programme were functioning as a whole and that there was no senior responsible owner or any form of governance.
In addition to NHS Digital’s input and system IT failure, the investigation found that NHS England failed to hold breast screening units to account for delivering against the contracts.
The outcome of the investigation concluded that NHS England should improve its contract management processes to ensure providers are delivering the service. Recommendations were also made to alter the NHS Digital software and implement failsafe procedures to prevent such occurrences in the future.
To ensure that those women affected by this difficult situation are able to receive prompt resolution, the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England are dealing with all medical negligence cases via an expedited system, avoiding costly and protracted litigation.