NHS Breast Cancer Screening Scandal - What we know.
Yesterday afternoon, Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt announced to parliament that for almost a decade, the NHS has been failing to invite women aged between 68 - 71 for breast cancer screening.
It is thought as many as 450,000 women aged between 70 - 79 could have been affected.
An independent review has been launched to determine why this has happened, why the error was able to go undetected for 9 years and how it can be prevented from happening again.
Breast Cancer Screening: what should happen?
Around 1 in 8 women in the UK will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. The risk of breast cancer increases with age, which is why the NHS offer screening in the form of a mammogram to all women in the UK, every 3 years from age 50 onwards.
A mammogram is an x-ray image of the breasts which can detect tumours that are too small to see or feel; helping to diagnose breast cancer at an earlier and more treatable stage.
Approximately 2.5 million women are invited for screening in the UK each year, with as many as 2 million of those attending for screening. That’s roughly an 80% uptake.
What went wrong?
The NHS computer system uses an algorithm to automatically identify women that are due for screening, prompting a breast cancer screening invitation letter.
Speaking to MPs in Parliament, Jeremy Hunt confirmed that an error was discovered by Public Health England, whilst they upgraded the IT systems in January of this year. The error, that had gone undetected since 2009, was alerted to ministers in March following an urgent clinical review. The mistake was kept out of the public domain over fears that existing screening services would be overwhelmed.
The error has meant that some women were not being invited to their final screening, between the ages of 68 - 71.
Public Health England also discovered similar errors with other screening programs such as the AgeX screen programme, which has been trialling screening for women aged between 47 - 73. Further analysis discovered that there had been problems with the way people’s ages had been inputted into the system.
Jeremy Hunt has confirmed these problems have now been fixed.
What are the implications?
Of the 450,000 women thought to be affected, some 309,000 are still alive. Screening letters are being prepared to be sent to all those who are known to be affected, with as many as 65,000 letters thought to be sent this week.
It is not clear at this stage how people’s lives have been affected. Jeremy Hunt revealed to MPs that computer modelling has predicted between 130-270 women may have died as a result of the error with many more expected to have suffered a shortening of life. The number of women affected in this way may well rise.
The independent review is being chaired by Lynda Thomas, CEO of Macmillan Cancer Support and Professor Martin Gore from the Royal Marsden Hospital. The review is expected to last 6 months.
The scandal is likely to open the floodgates to litigation in the form of clinical negligence claims, as hundreds, perhaps thousands of women become aware that their cancer should have been spotted sooner. Claimants will need to prove that:
i. They should have received a letter inviting them for breast cancer screening
ii. Had they received a letter for breast cancer screening, they would have attended.
iii. If they had attended breast cancer screening, their cancer would have been discovered at that stage; and
iv. If their cancer had been discovered earlier at that screening, it would have had a material difference to their treatment and/or prognosis.
We await to see what cost this will have for the NHS in the long term. In previous cases where there has been a delay in diagnosing breast cancer, damages awards can reach upwards of £150,000 in certain circumstances.
If you have concerns that you might have been affected, or you have received a letter from the NHS and you would like to speak to a solicitor, please contact Ewan Lockhart () or Jack Bassett () who will be happy to assist with any enquiries.