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Breast screening: 450,000 miss out due to ‘administrative incompetence’

As many as 270 women in England may have died due to “administrative incompetence” by failing to receive an invitation to a final routine breast cancer screening, the health secretary has said.

Jeremy Hunt, speaking in the Commons yesterday, stated that an estimated 450,000 women between ages 68 and 71 did not receive invitations to the screening due to a computer algorithm error since 2009.

Hunt announced an independent review into the scandal and said it was “totally devastating to hear that you have lost, or are about to lose, a loved one because of administrative incompetence.”

He added that it “unlikely” to have led to more deaths than this range, but stated: “tragically there are likely to be some people in this group who would have been alive today if the failure had not happened.”

The computer algorithm failure was found due to an upgrade in the breast screening invitation IT system, which found that some women on the ‘AgeX’ trial—created to examine whether women up to the age of 73 could benefit from screening—were not receiving an invitation to the final screening as a 70-year-old.

This was part of a government initiative to tackle falling rates of breast cancer screening in the UK.

Of the 450,000 women affected, 309,000 are still alive and in their 70s.

Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, labelled yesterday’s revelations as “terrifying” and noted anyone who has had a loved one taken by cancer will know of the great anguish and pain that it causes.

“At a time when screening rates are already at their lowest level for a decade, ministers must make sure the NHS has the staff and resources it needs to put these mistakes right and reassure the public that NHS screening programmes are working effectively,” Ashworth said.

“And there remain big questions about the failure in the oversight of the Breast Screening Programme. This problem has affected thousands of women over many years. Ministers must explain why this issue was allowed to go on for so long and why the problem wasn’t identified earlier.”



Jeremy Hunt said: “As well as apologising to the families affected, we would wish to offer any further advice they might find helpful, including the process in which they can establish whether the missed scan is a likely cause of death, and compensation is therefore payable.

“We recognise this will be incredibly distressing for some families, and we will approach the issue as sensitively as possible. Irrespective of when the incident started, the fact is that for many years, oversight of our screening programme has not been good enough. Many families will be deeply disturbed by these revelations, not least because there will be some people who receive a letter having had a recent diagnosis of breast cancer.

“We must also recognise that there may be some who receive a letter having had a recent terminal diagnosis. For them and others it is incredibly upsetting to know that you did not receive an invitation for screening at the correct time, and totally devastating to hear that you have lost, or are about to lose a loved one because of administrative incompetence. On behalf on the government, public health England, and the NHS, I apologise wholeheartedly and unreservedly for the suffering caused.”

Labour MP for Wigan Lisa Nandy said: “There is no other way to describe this than utterly, utterly heartbreaking. It is hard to imagine what some of the worst affected families will be going through over the next few weeks. Unless he puts further resources into the system, other people will go to the back of the queue as a consequence.

“In my own region in the North West, one in five posts are currently vacant, and for far too many women in this country, where they live currently determines whether they live or die.”

All of the women affected by the administrative failure will be contacted by post by the end of May, and women aged over 72 can contact a helpline to discuss breast screening.

Hunt added that any woman who wants a mammogram will get one within six months.

Call the breast screening helpline number 0800 169 2692 for more information, or visit the NHS Choices website.



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