Breast Cancer Screening Error

This week the Government announced that over the past 10 years around 450,000 women aged between 68-71 haven’t been invited to their final breast screening appointments due to an IT error at Public Health England. This revelation is deeply concerning. My thoughts are with those who have been affected by this error and the deeply worrying problems this has caused. If any constituent is affected, or feels they might be, please use the following details.

The Government is recommending not to call your GP but call the hotline at: 0800 169 2692

All 309,000 women affected who are still alive will be contacted by letter.

Affected women aged up to 72 will be offered a catch-up screening appointment.

Women aged over 72 will be invited to access clinical advice through the hotline (0800 169 2692) to establish whether screening is still the right option for them.

If you wish to speak to me about this issue please phone 0114 213 81 50 to arrange an appointment.

My sympathies are with those who have been failed by the system due to the error. Below is a full briefing from Breast Cancer Now. It has a full summary of the events for your further information.

Best wishes,

Jared O’Mara MP
Sheffield Hallam

 

Information from Breast Cancer Now is below. Their website is here.

Summary

  • Over the past 10 years around 450,000 women aged between 68-71 haven’t been invited to their final breast screening appointments because of an IT error at Public Health England
  • Letters will be sent to all affected women to signpost them to appropriate screening advice or appointments
  • The earlier cancer is diagnosed, the more successful treatment is likely to be. Therefore it is estimated up to 270 women may have had their lives shortened as a result of this error
  • The Health Secretary has commissioned an independent review into the issue and has committed to expand the capacity of screening services to ensure that all women affected who wish to be screened will receive an appointment in the next 6 months
  • Breast Cancer Now are calling on the government to expand the capacity of the breast screening programme by committing to employ more than 200 mammographers and at least 50 radiologists
  • Breast Cancer Now’s information for patients is available here

 

450,000 women missed screening appointment invitations
Since 2009, a substantial number of women aged 68-71 have not been sent their invitation to their final breast screening appointment. Over the past decade Public Health England (PHE) estimate this has meant around 450,000 women have missed their routine screening appointments. The Health Secretary told the House today that statistical estimates are that between 135 and 270 women may have had their lives shortened due to this mistake.

Computer error
PHE have reported that this issue was caused by a computer algorithm failure. The error was highlighted in January by the introduction of a new IT system which allowed breast screening services to see the age of women being invited for the first time. The issue was escalated to Ministers in March and steps have been put in place to make sure no more women will be affected in the future.

Investigations into the cause of the error found linked causes, including issues with the system’s IT and how age parameters are programmed into it. It also found variations in how local services send out invitations to women in different parts of the country. This potentially compounds issues brought to light in the APPG on Breast Cancer’s recent report into geographical inequalities in breast cancer, available here.

A hidden problem
The public information provided on breast screening focuses on attendance for those women invited to screening – the number of women invited compared to the number of women who came to their appointment. Currently 71.7 per cent of women invited to screening take up that appointment.[i] Because these women were not invited to their final screening appointment they were not included in the statistics and this issue was not visible to those working on examining screening uptake.

How has this affected women not invited to screening?
The Breast Screening Programme allows us to detect cancer earlier. The earlier cancer is diagnosed, the more successful treatment is likely to be. Statistically, the Department of Health estimates between 135 and 270 women may have had their lives shortened because of this mistake.

How patients will be informed and supported
All 309,000 women affected who are still alive will be contacted by letter, starting with 65,000 letters to be sent this week. Affected women aged up to 72 will be offered a catch up screening appointment. Women aged over 72 will be invited to access clinical advice through a Public Health England helpline (0800 169 2692) to establish whether screening is still the right option for them. The Health Secretary has committed to ensuring that all women affected will receive their invitations by the end of May.

The government will also be writing to the next of kin of those who have missed a scan and have subsequently died of breast cancer to apologise, offer advice, and work with them to establish whether the missed scan is a likely cause of death and therefore whether compensation is payable.

Government response
The Health Secretary has commissioned an independent review of the NHS Breast Screening Programme chaired by Lynda Thomas, Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support and Professor Martin Gore, Consultant Medical Oncologist Professor of Cancer Medicine at The Royal Mardsen, which is expected to report in six months. This review will examine its processes, IT systems and further improvements to minimise the risk of any repetition of this incident.

The impact on the breast screening service
As Breast Cancer Now highlighted in our Good Enough? report there are significant capacity issues within the breast cancer screening service. To resolve this error and to ensure that women affected can be seen will require additional resource. The Health Secretary has acknowledged this possibility and committed to ‘do our very best‘ to offer appointments to those affected within six months.

There is already a 20 per cent shortfall in mammography staff to deliver the screening programme, the equivalent of 215 full time staff,[ii] and a 13 per cent vacancy rate amongst breast radiologists, the equivalent of 54 full time staff[iii]. We also know that many who were employed at the introduction of the screening programme are expected to retire over the next decade, with an estimated 32 per cent retirement rate of consultant breast radiologists by 2025[iv].