450,000 women missed out on breast screening appointments 'due to computer error'

Cancer Research UK

Around 450,000 women in England missed out on a routine breast screening appointment due to an NHS failure to send invitations. 

Up to 270 women may have had their lives shortened as a result, according to estimates. 

A computer error has been blamed for the missed invitations.

Since 2009 women aged 68-71 were not invited for their final screening appointment. Jeremy Hunt, secretary of state for health and social care, announced the news, as well as an independent inquiry to establish the clinical impact of the failure. 

Emma Greenwood, Cancer Research UK’s director of policy and public affairs, called the news “very concerning.” 

What happened?

Breast screening in England is run by Public Health England (PHE) and screens around 2 million women a year. It is offered to women aged 50-70 who are registered with a GP. 

The failure was brought to PHE’s attention in January this year, and PHE told health ministers in March. 

Latest estimates from PHE state that 450,000 women aged between 68 and 71 were not invited to their final breast screening between 2009 and 2018. Around 150,000 have since died. The remaining 309,000 are now in their 70s.

What’s the impact?

It’s unclear whether any delay in diagnosis resulted in avoidable harm or heath issues, so an independent review will look at clinical impact. 

Best estimates suggest 135-270 women had their lives shortened because of the failure. 
Screening programmes are run separately across the UK and so this issue only affects women registered with a GP in England. 

What’s being done?

PHE said urgent work to stop the failure affecting any more women has been completed. 

It intends to contact all 309,000 women believed to still be alive by the end of May, outlining what screening options are available to them. There is also a helpline available (0800 169 2692). 

PHE will also contact next of kin of those who have died possibly due to missed screening, to give advice and information on whether compensation may be available. 

What can you do if you’re concerned?

“We know this may leave many women with questions about breast screening,” said Greenwood. “If you suspect you have been directly affected by this or if you are over 50 and haven’t had a mammogram in the last three years and would like one, the NHS Choices website provides further information.

“It’s worth remembering that most breast cancers are still found by women themselves, outside of the screening programme, so if you notice any unusual changes in your breast see your GP straight away.

“If you have any general questions about breast cancer screening, our team of friendly expert nurses are available to help on 0808 800 4040 or you can visit www.cruk.org/breastscreening.”

Hunt said: "Irrespective of when the incident started, the fact is for many years oversight of our screening programme has not been good enough."

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