NHS breast cancer screening failure: What you need to know

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt says up to 270 women may have died due to an IT failure that prevented some women from receiving their final routine breast-cancer mammogram invitation.

He told the Commons that up to 450,000 women didn’t get a letter to inform them of their screening. Mr Hunt has now announced an independent review and apologised “whole-heartedly” for the failure.

WNOL takes an in-depth look at some of the key facts behind the scandal.

What is breast cancer screening?

Breast cancer screening is a service offered on the NHS that aims to detect breast cancers at an early stage, often when they’re too small to see or feel. This is done by using an X-ray process called a mammogram.

Currently, this service is routinely offered every three years to all UK women aged 50-70.

The AgeX trial has been looking at the risks and benefits of offering the screening to women aged 47 up to the age of 73 to see if it is worth expanding the service.

Breast Screening Programme England, 2016-17: Women ScreenedBreast Screening Programme England, 2016-17: Cancer Detection

According to NHS Digital, 2,2 million women were screened in 2016-17 and more than 18,000 cancers were detected (see graphic above, reproduced courtesy of NHS Digital).

NHS figures show that in the UK, about one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, with the chances of it developing increasing with age. The chances of a woman developing breast cancer in her 20s is about one in 1,732.

What went wrong with the service?

Jeremy Hunt says the issue dates back to 2009 but was only detected in January, due to a new IT system introduced by Public health England that detected a number of women over 68 hadn’t received a letter inviting them for their last mammogram in the three years before their 71st birthday.

The Home Secretary said that the failure to send the affected women their invitation letters was due to a “disastrous computer error”. It hasn’t yet been confirmed if anyone died directly as a result of the error, but Mr Hunt said the estimates are that between 135 and 270 women may have had their life shortened.

What happens next?

It is estimated that 309,000 of the women affected are still alive. Mr Hunt said the NHS will contact these women to go for a screening if they are still residing in the UK and registered with a GP.

Any women between the ages of 68-71 who haven’t been contacted by the end of May are likely to have not been affected by the IT failure.

Women above the age of 72 will be offered access to a breast screening helpline number to help them decide if they require treatment or not.

The breast screening helpline number: 0800 169 2692

There is more information at the NHS Choices website

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