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Jeremy Hunt gave wrong information on scale of NHS breast cancer screening errors, review says

Error ‘caused unnecessary concern to the public and additional distress to women affected’, independent review says

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Friday 14 December 2018 12:03 GMT
Jeremy Hunt reveals 450,000 women missed breast cancer screenings due to error

Nearly 500,000 women were needlessly plunged into uncertainty after Jeremy Hunt told the House of Commons, based on incorrect advice, that NHS breast cancer screening errors had led to hundreds of deaths, a review has found.

The women and their families suffered “additional distress” over the error after incorrect assumptions about the scale of the problem, and its cause, had been made in the “rush to announce and correct” the issue, the review said.

Mr Hunt, who was health and social care secretary at the time, was said to have made the right decision “based on the advice given”, however assumptions about the issue were “not sufficiently challenged”.

The error was said to have affected an estimated 450,000 women and to have potentially led to hundreds of lives being cut short when it emerged in May.

But the review, published on Thursday, concluded that at most 67,000 women missed their final screening invite, and up to 34 had their lives cut short.

“The lack of timeliness and accuracy in confirming the numbers resulted in unnecessary concern to the public about the scale of the incident, causing additional distress to the women who might have been affected, and their families,” the report found.

Mr Hunt had told the Commons a “computer algorithm failure” dating back to 2009 meant many women aged 68 to 71 were not invited to their final routine screening.

But the review found there was no computer algorithm failure, and that the IT systems used – although described as “dated and unwieldy” – had broadly operated as they were designed to.

Instead, it found the misunderstanding arose because of a specification document written in 2013.

This said women should be invited for screening “within 36 months of their previous screening, until they reach the age of 71”.

In the opinion of the review, this document was based on a misunderstanding of how the programme was being delivered in practice, with local screening units continuing to understand the upper age limit as 70, and to communicate this to women in invitation letters.

All women who may have missed screening initiations have since been invited to a catch-up screening, NHS England told the review panel.

It said no one person, or body, was to blame for the confusion and made recommendations including clarifying the age when women should stop being invited to screenings, updating public information so it is clear to women what they should expect from the screening programme, and reviewing the governance of all national cancer screening programmes.

It also suggests making IT systems simpler for breast screening units to use, and putting in place a structure to ensure that IT systems work together to deliver the programme as well as other screening programmes.

The review comes after it was revealed that 50,000 women missed out on cervical cancer screening because of operational failures in the service outsourced to Capita.

Both cases will be used to inform the recently announced broader review of national cancer screening programmes.

The review was co-chaired by ​Professor Martin Gore, of the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, who said that while the NHS programme was “one of the best in the world” it needed greater support..

“It is essential that Public Health England as a matter of urgency works with the women they contacted and have been diagnosed with breast cancer, their families and their healthcare professionals, to find out whether they were harmed by any errors in the breast screening programme, and are given the support they need,” he added.

Samia al Qadhi, chief executive of Breast Cancer Care, said: “While it’s a relief the number of women affected by the breast screening incident is dramatically fewer than expected, it is exasperating that hundreds of thousands across England have been caused needless distress and anxiety for months.

“It is incredibly disconcerting that there is a total lack of leadership and accountability for such a crucial programme for women’s health. Having fragmented responsibilities without a sense of a bigger picture is worrying as this can open the door to such appalling mistakes.”

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In a written statement, health minister Steve Brine said: “I would like to apologise for the distress and suffering caused by this incident.

“Whilst subsequent advice provided to the then-secretary of state was based on an incomplete understanding of what had happened, we welcome the review’s conclusions that the former secretary of state was correct, based on the information provided, to inform the house of the breast screening incident.

“The review makes clear that the number of women affected by this incident is significantly lower than previously estimated.”

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