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Thousands of women miss routine breast screening appointment due to ‘computer error’

Nearly half a million women in England have 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.

Analysis by Public Health England (PHE) dating back to 2009, found that around 450,000 invitations for a final test had not been sent out to women aged 68-71. Jeremy Hunt, secretary of state for health and social care, announced the news this month, as well as an independent inquiry to establish the clinical impact of the failure. 

Dr Jenny Harries, PHE deputy medical director, said: “On behalf of NHS breast screening services, we apologise to the women affected and we are writing to them to offer a catch-up screening appointment. They and their families’ wellbeing is our top priority and we are very sorry for these faults in the system.”

Dr Harries said a complex IT problem with the breast screening invitation system had led to some women not being invited for their final screen between their 68th and 71st birthdays.

“We have carried out urgent work to identify the problem and have fixed it. Additional failsafe systems have been introduced to ensure the problem does not reoccur,” she added.

Local breast screening services are working with NHS England and PHE to ensure that all of the women affected are contacted and offered the opportunity for a screen.

 Up to 309,000 women aged between 70 and 79 will be offered the opportunity for a catch-up NHS breast screening test this year, Public Health England said.

The independent inquiry of the NHS breast screening programme will look at such issues as its processes, IT systems and further changes and improvements that can be made to the system to minimise the risk of any repetition of this incident, and is expected to report in six months.

Charities have voiced their concerns about the findings. The chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, Delyth Morgan, said it was beyond belief that the error continued for almost a decade, describing it as a “colossal systematic failure”, and Emma Greenwood, Cancer Research UK’s director of policy and public affairs, said the news was “very concerning.”