Lizzy Buchan: NHS must reassure women missed by cancer screening

Thousands of patients missed out on breast cancer screening due to an IT glitch.
Thousands of patients missed out on breast cancer screening due to an IT glitch.
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There is no doubt that early diagnosis is one of the most important weapons in the fight against cancer. Doctors, scientists and even politicians agree on this issue, as prompt diagnosis is at the very heart of Scotland’s cancer strategy.

Picking up symptoms early means better survival rates as well as fewer complicated and expensive treatments for patients whose condition has worsened.

For some it means the difference between life and death.

This is why it was so disappointing to discover this week that nearly 4,000 women in their fifties and sixties were not offered routine breast cancer scans due to IT problems.

In Scotland, women aged 50 to 70 years are invited for routine mammograms once every three years, to check for early signs of breast cancer.

Yet thousands never received a letter due to an IT glitch. Of these women, nearly 200 are reported to have developed the disease.

We cannot know what impact this has had on their lives and their care, whether their cancer could have been picked up earlier or if they could have a better prognosis.

What we do know is they were let down by a system that is supposed to help everyone, not just those who are rich enough or well-informed enough to demand it.

Screening is one of the best way to pick up on early symptoms of a number of cancer and it has undoubtedly helped to improve Scotland’s survival rates.

An independent review commissioned by Cancer Research UK estimated that the screening programme reduced breast cancer deaths by about 20 per cent. Yet this debacle could prevent people from taking up this vital service.

The report by Healthcare Improvement Scotland last week found that 41 per cent of the missing women have still not come forward since the error was discovered, putting the uptake on a significantly lower level than the national average.

There are already issues around take-up in deprived areas so health bosses need to be doing more to overcome these challenges.

The mix-up also raises serious questions about the management by National Services Division (NSD), which has now set up a special team to deal with adverse events.

The Scottish Government-commissioned review also revealed that staff knew as early as 2002 that patients who switched GP did not automatically appear on the computer system that generated screening invitations.

Repeated delays to the introduction of a new IT system meant it was only introduced last year. Even when the scale of the problem became evident, National Services Scotland was still slow to inform those who had been missed.

Those in charge have been rightly apologetic about what went wrong and hopefully their promises of action will be swift and effective.

They need to be bold as it is clear that lack of leadership was one of the major contributing factors to this whole mess. Most of all, NHS leaders must act to address the concern caused to these women who were missed by the system. Former Labour MSP Dr Richard Simpson has even suggested counselling for the patients who missed out on routine breast cancer checks.

Whatever happens, the NHS needs to prove that it is taking the health of each individual patient seriously.