“Condemned to death … by an NHS computer”, “Betrayal of 450,000” and “NHS cancer bungle kills 100s of women” are some of the headlines in UK newspapers after the government launched an independent inquiry into an IT glitch that may have shortened the lives of between 135 and 270 women.
UK Health and Social Care Secretary Jeremy Hunt launched the independent review this week after Public Health England discovered 450,000 women had missed their breast cancer screenings due to a “computer algorithm failure”.
The error was initially discovered in January this year after an upgrade to the IT system provided access to improved data sets.
Analysis by PHE, which is running the national breast cancer screening program, indicates that 450,000 women aged between 68 and 71 did not receive an invitation to their final routine breast cancer screening between 2009 and the beginning of 2018.
It is believed that between 135 and 270 women might have had "their lives shortened" as a result.
The independent inquiry, which will be led by Lynda Thomas, Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, and leading oncologist Professor Martin Gore, will establish the clinical impact of the IT failure, according to the UK Secretary of State.
Out of the 450,000 women, 309,000 are thought to still be alive, and the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England will contact those registered with a GP before the end of May.
The failure is thought to have not affected any patients in Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland uses a different IT system.
MP Jonathan Ashworth told the House of Commons on Wednesday that “eight years is a long time for an error of this magnitude to go undetected”, while MP Sarah Wollaston urged for “consistent, high-quality, evidence-based guidance” to be provided.
“Irrespective of when the incident started, the fact is for many years oversight of our screening programme has not been good enough,” Hunt told MPs, apologising to the families affected.
Patients are being asked to contact a new national helpline set up to provide support and go to the NHS Choices website for more information.
Statistics indicate that survival rates for breast cancer in the UK are below the EU average.
In response to the launch of the inquiry, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, welcomed the inquiry and said steps need to be taken to ensure this never happens again.
"The national breast screening program has potentially saved thousands of lives since its inception – last year alone, over 18,000 cancers were detected as a result of the programme, which might not have been detected as early otherwise.
"We are shocked to learn that hundreds of thousands of women in England have missed out on their opportunity for breast screening – and the implications for GPs and our teams will potentially be significant, as patients seek reassurance and to find out where they go from here.
"We welcome the independent review into this matter … but the priority should not be to establish blame, but to put measures in place to invite those women affected for screening, where appropriate; to ensure there are enough resources in the system to cope with any additional demand that might follow as a result; and to take steps to ensure this never happens again.”
A version of this story was originally published on the British Journal of Healthcare Computing, a sister publication of HITNA.