Breast cancer error may have killed 11

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FAILURES IN an NHS breast screening unit may have cost the lives of up to 11 women and put a further 74 at risk, an inquiry reported yesterday.

The poor standard of care provided by the East Devon breast screening service led to cancers being missed in 24 women and the diagnosis delayed in a further 61, of whom 11 have already died.

An independent disciplinary inquiry set up by the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust found Dr John Brennan, the consultant radiologist who ran the unit based at the hospital, guilty yesterday of personal and professional misconduct and professional incompetence. He has been reported to the General Medical Council.

Dr Brennan, who had been suspended on full pay since 1997, resigned last week after receiving his copy of the report. In a statement he said he did not agree with its findings.

The scandal first came tolight in 1997, prompting Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, to order a report from Sir Kenneth Calman, Chief Medical Officer at the time. This found 229 women out of 1,920 had been misdiagnosed.

The Royal Devon and Exeter Trust set up its own disciplinary inquiry in June 1997 into the section of the East Devon Service that was run at the hospital by Dr Brennan. Professor Robin Wilson and a team of 15 radiologists reviewed the cases of 2,125 women who had been recalled for further checks between April 1995 and June 1997. The Royal Devon and Exeter Trust said yesterday it was now able for the first time to confirm the number of women whose cancers had been missed or whose diagnosis had been delayed.

A total of 24 women received a new diagnosis of cancer after the review, and all were receiving appropriate care and treatment. A further 61, with cancer diagnosed between 1991 and 1997, were identified as having had a delayed diagnosis; 11 of these women have since died.

Angela Pedder, the chief executive of the trust, said she wanted to reiterate the apology offered to the patients in 1997 "and reassure them that the lessons that needed to be learnt have been learnt". An audit last year had shown that the unit was now working well. "It is important that women have confidence in the [service] and are reassured by the action we have taken," she said.

An Exeter solicitor, Chris Over, said he was co-ordinating the claims of about 50 patients arising out of the failure of the screening service.