Health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s admission that between 135 and 270 women ‘may have had their lives shortened’ due to 450,000 crucial screenings for breast cancer being missed is both shocking and completely indefensible.
Mr Hunt has quite rightly launched an immediate inquiry, to be led by Public Health England (PHE), into the computer system failure which caused women aged between 68 and 71 not to be invited to their final breast screening between 2009 and the start of 2018.
It is of course the right thing for Mr Hunt to do, but sadly that won’t change anything for thousands of those who have been affected.
The health of each woman who missed a screening has been put at risk, leading to Mr Hunt admitting it is “likely some people would have been alive today if this had not happened”.
He says between 135 and 270 women ‘may have had their lives shortened’, and although he says numbers may eventually be considerably lower, it is also possible they could be higher given the huge importance of early detection of cancer to improve the effectiveness of treatment and extend lives.
Mr Hunt has also admitted the situation could mean that some women recently diagnosed with breast cancer – and those who have a terminal diagnosis – could now receive a letter saying they had missed a screening.
“For them and others, it is incredibly upsetting to know that you did not receive an invitation to screening at a correct time and totally devastating to hear you may have lost or be about to lose a loved one because of administrative incompetence,” he said.
It is truly an awful situation.
Families of women who died of breast cancer and missed screenings to be contacted
Of the women who missed screenings, 309,000 are still alive and will be contacted before the end of May. All aged under 75 will be offered a catch-up screening and it is being promised they will be carried out within the next six months.
Women eligible for screening should receive automatic letters from their GPs to attend the screenings. They are offered to those most at risk of developing the disease so early cancer development can be spotted before women themselves notice symptoms.
Mr Hunt says the Department of Health will now be contacting the families of women who have died of breast cancer whom they believed missed a screening to apologise and to look to establish whether their missed scan was a likely cause of death.
It has already been stated that compensation may be payable to those families – something we’d suggest was certain if the missed scans were to be proved a cause of death – but that will come as little comfort to those who have lost loved ones.
In our work at Hudgell Solicitors we often represent families who have lost relatives earlier than they should due to medical errors.
Far too often it is not due to an individual mistake of a medical professional, but down to a process or system failure, such as this. Such errors are completely inexcusable as they can be prevented with basic checks and reviews.
How on earth can a system like this, which is providing such a vital service by ensuring women are invited to tests which could prove the difference between life and death, be allowed to go wrong for so long, and impact on so many?
Given it took nearly a decade to pick up this problem, I would suggest serious alarm bells are now ringing across the NHS as to how many other potentially life-saving tests and appointments which are computer generated could be missed if there is a similar error and no system in place to quickly alert officials to it.
Mr Hunt says it was “a serious failure of the breast screening programme” and has apologised “wholeheartedly and unreservedly for the suffering caused”.
In our experience, whilst apologies are appreciated by families of those who lose loved ones, they want answers as to how and why it was ever allowed to happen.
They also want lessons to be learned and for changes to be made to prevent others going through the same trauma of knowing they were robbed of precious time with their relatives. That can be the only positive from this terrible failure.