As many as 270 women’s lives may have been shortened after an IT failure in England’s breast cancer screening programme meant 450,000 patients were not invited for appointments, Britain’s health minister said on Wednesday.
Jeremy Hunt apologised in parliament for the “serious failure,” which he said was the result of a mistake in a computer system’s algorithm, and ordered an independent review.
“Our current best estimate, which comes with caveats ... is that there may be between 135 and 270 women who had their lives shortened as a result,” he said.
"There may be between 135 and 270 women who had their lives shortened as a result”
“Tragically there are likely to be some people in this group who would have been alive today if the failure had not happened.”
Britain’s state-funded National Health Service (NHS), which provides free healthcare to the entire population, is one of the country’s most popular institutions.
However, it is occasionally hit by failures and scandals which resonate widely across society as almost everyone receives NHS care throughout their lives.
The IT error took place in 2009 but only came to light in January this year, Hunt said.
Of the 450,000 women affected, 150,000 have died. The remaining women are now in their 70s.
“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 you may have lost or be about to lose a loved one because of administrative incompetence,” said Hunt.
Women in England between the ages of 50 and 70 are normally invited for breast cancer screening every three years.
The IT failure meant that the women affected missed out on a routine appointment before their 70th birthday.
Cancer Research UK, a non-governmental organisation, said the news was very concerning and advised any woman over 50 who had not had a mammogram in the last three years to book an appointment.
In the previous worst NHS patient care scandal, concerning poor practices at a small hospital in the English county of Staffordshire, an estimated 400 to 1,200 patients died between 2005 and 2009 as a result of inadequate care.
England’s breast screening failure follows unrelated news in Ireland last week that more than 200 cervical cancer test results should have resulted in earlier intervention.
The Irish government said 17 of the patients involved have since died, though it has not yet established the cause of death, and a further 1,500 women who developed cervical cancer over the last 10 years did not have their cases reviewed.
The government has ordered a statutory investigation into the scandal, which has dominated political debate and shaken confidence in the Irish health service.