There can’t have been many worse weeks in terms of patient confidence in medical professionals and heath bodies being damaged. Over the past few days we have learned that 450,000 woman in England missed crucial breast cancer screenings, and 2,500 neurology patients – including children – are being recalled to have their cases reviewed amid concerns of misdiagnosis.
Patients in Ireland have told how their ‘worlds have been turned upside down’ by returning home to a letter effectively saying they could have a life-changing illness, having previously been told all was ok.
In England, families are now having to try and comprehend that they may have lost their loved ones prematurely due to errors over appointments – precious time together taken away which can never be replaced.
The situation certainly poses plenty of questions over the checking systems in place across health services.
The computer system error causing the missed breast cancer screenings was able to go undetected for a decade, and concerns were initially raised about the diagnosis of patients by the neurology consultant linked to the recalls in December 2016.
Both cases highlight a lack of scrutiny over both people and procedures in healthcare, relating to tests for life-changing conditions.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt will have to answer serious questions as to why the issue over breast screening appointments was not uncovered sooner, given it dates back 10 years, and came to the attention of health officials in January.
And Dr Mark Mitchelson, who is responsible for neurosciences at the Belfast Health Trust where the work of the neurology consultant is under review, will need to answer similar questions too.
His patients only received letters this week, despite concerns being first raised in December 2016, with the consultant able to carry on practicing until June 2017 when he voluntarily suspended his practice.
Dr Mitchelson has said the recall is being conducted because ‘patient safety should always be paramount’, but given the background, that statement appears somewhat hollow.
What we have seen over the past week is that sadly, all too often, patient safety is compromised, and although these two cases are different, there are striking similarities, as when things go wrong in healthcare, they are often not spotted quickly enough.
Adequate systems are simply not in place to ensure surgeons and consultants are regularly scrutinised, and they are not robust enough to ensure crucial appointments are not missed.
That does not suggest that patient safety is paramount.
That is the indefensible connection between these cases and they must act as a lesson for all health bodies and organisations going forward.