Breast Screening Error – Patient Rights
The House of Commons yesterday announced that an IT error within the NHS has led to 450,000 women in the UK between the ages of 68 and 71 missing invitations to attend breast screening appointments. The failings could have led to up to 270 women in England alone having their lives shortened according to the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, with thousands of others missing the opportunity for earlier detection of tumours as the screening would detect tumours which were too small to see or feel.
The issue has most likely affected women between the ages of 70-79, and 309,000 people will now be offered catch up screenings. Women who have been affected are being advised that if they are concerned to contact a dedicated hotline on 0800 169 2692 and that they will receive a letter by the end of May.
A dedicated inquiry is being set up and will be chaired by Lynda Thomas, CEO of Macmillan Cancer Support and Professor Martin Gore from the Royal Marsden Hospital, who will report back in six months. The Government have apologised unreservedly for their error.
This is the second NHS failing that has been brought to light around women’s health within the last 18 months. The vaginal mesh scandal was recently brought to the public’s attention by the media when it emerged that many women who had undergone a childbirth-related procedure had suffered due to an implant that is aimed at permanently reinforcing the vaginal wall that is weakened during child birth.
What are a patient’s rights?
Public or private health organisations have a duty of care to their patients to ensure that they receive appropriate treatment at all times, so if there is clear evidence of delayed or incorrect diagnosis, unnecessary pain and suffering, surgical errors or mistakes that have led to early death, a claim may exist. The breast screening failures could have breached this duty and women affected leading to a late diagnosis.
Late diagnosis can cause unnecessary pain and suffering, anxiety and worry for the patient and their family. Patients may have undergone unnecessary treatment such as chemotherapy that could have been avoided. Detection at screenings may identify tumours that should be highlighted for further investigation and one in three cancer patients are over 70 years old but there are arguments in relation to the risks and benefits argument regarding treatment for patients who are over 70 years old. Based on the Health Secretary’s comments, it is evident that the issue has certainly led to lives being shortened in many cases.
Clinical negligence expert, Nimish Patel, of Roberts Jackson solicitors has commented on the recent failings:
“The early detection of breast cancer is vital and the likelihood of breast cancer increases above the age of 50 but women under the age of 70 are unable to request a screening themselves. The basis of the Age X trial was to offer screenings to women between the ages of 47 and 73 and in particular those who were potentially at risk, by letter every three years.
The NHS write to 2.5 million women every year and there are 2 million screenings as a result but Jeremy Hunt said that it was surprising that women had not come forward to ask about their letters. It should not be for the patient to request an invitation to a screening which ought to have been automatic. In these circumstances, the onus has been on vulnerable women between the ages of 70-79 to demand screenings when they were unaware that they may even be at risk which is wholly unreasonable.
One in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and early detection would lead to non –invasive treatment which is more likely to be successful.”