Shorter appointments, more staff, and an extra machine needed to cope with breast cancer screening scandal backlog
Appointments for more than 3,000 Norfolk women caught up in the national breast cancer screening scandal will be reduced in length as the county’s busiest hospital prepares to tackle the backlog.
Earlier this month health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a “computer algorithm failure” meant many women aged 68 to 71 were not invited to their final routine breast screening, with hundreds of women’s lives being cut short as a result.
Now, it can be revealed around 3,050 women in the catchment area for the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) were affected, as the hospital prepared to handle the pressure arranging new appointments would bring.
Some 49 women aged under 72 in the area were sent letters to offer them appointments if they had been missed.
While those between 73 and 79 were asked to call a national helpline number to make a self referral. It was estimated around 3,000 eligible women could self-refer to the NNUH, and that around 2,400 of those would take up the opportunity.
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But the hospital’s board of directors heard yesterday that this would place extra pressure on staff, and appointment length would be reduced from eight to seven minutes to fit more in.
Non-executive director Sally Smith said: “I was slightly surprised at that, it seemed people coming might be more worried and may need a little more time rather than a little less time.”
Medical director Peter Chapman said: “I think you’re right, we’ve made it clear that we must be sure we maintain the safety of the screening process.”
But it would still be difficult to meet the July deadline for catching up, board papers said, as staff vacancies and access to machinery meant even with shortened appointments it would take until January to clear the list.
Paying temporary radiographers, buying a third ultrasound machine, and making a room available in genito-urinary medicine were all measures approved to try and ease the stain.
While the NNUH is expected to see the most women caught in the error, the James Paget University Hospital (JPUH), in Gorleston and Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) in King’s Lynn would also be holding additional appointments.
The QEH and JPUH did not confirm the number of women affected in their catchment areas.
It comes as a cancer expert said yesterday that the error could date back further than previously thought.
Mr Hunt said the computer problem dated back to 2009. But Professor Peter Sasieni, a cancer screening and prevention researcher at King’s College London, believes the problems could have started as early as 2005.
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Public Health England (PHE) said his analysis is “flawed”.
Prof Sasieni studied data from the breast cancer screening programme between 2004 and 2017, looking at the number of eligible women who were sent invitations each year from the ages of 45 to 70.
In a letter published in medical journal The Lancet, Prof Sasieni said that between 2004 and 2005 - when the programme was extended to the age of 70 - the number of invitations sent to women aged 65 to 70 was “very low”.
A third of eligible women should have been invited every year - but Prof Sasieni claimed the figures showed it was 31pc in 2005-06, rising to almost 35pc in 2016-17.
By comparison, between 34pc and 38pc of people aged 50 to 64 were invited each year.
The difference meant more than 500,000 could have missed out on invitations since 2005, he concluded.
The letter said: “Data that might have alerted people to the lower-than-expected number of invitations being sent to women aged 70 were publicly available, but no-one looked at them carefully enough.
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“Some of the fault lies in the way the data was presented, but it is also unclear whose responsibility it is to monitor such outcomes.”
Professor John Newton, director of health improvement at PHE, told the BBC: “This is a flawed analysis which fails to take into account some important facts, such as when the breast screening programme was rolled out to all 70-year-olds in England or when a clinical trial was started called Age X.”
He said PHE was focused on supporting those not invited to their final screening.
An independent review has been launched into the computer error, which Mr Hunt said was discovered in January and may have led to up to 270 women having their lives cut short.
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