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Failings of the NHS Breast Screening Programme may have resulted in up to 270 deaths

The health secretary Jeremy Hunt has addressed parliament in respect of “a serious failure that has come to light” in the breast cancer screening programme. Issuing an apology and launching an enquiry, he confirmed that a computer algorithm problem has resulted in an estimated 450,000 women missing out on routine screening for the disease since 2009.

The NHS screening programme invites all women between the ages of 50 and 70 every three years to have a special x-ray of their breasts (a mammogram). The statistics are sobering – 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer over their lifetimes. Breast screening aims to find breast cancers as early as possible before women are aware of any symptoms and when the chance of cure is highest.

The computer error meant that between 2009 and 2018 450,000 women between the ages of 68 and 71 were not invited to their final screening. Of those, 309,000 are still alive and can expect to be contacted by letter over the course of the next four weeks to be invited for a catch-up screening.

It is deeply concerning that this problem has taken 8 years to come to light, and it appears that the error was only discovered was due to an upgrade to the breast screening invitation IT system. It is estimated that screening prevents 1,300 deaths a year. It is therefore highly likely that these failings have resulted in delays in diagnosis, treatment, and in some cases, avoidable deaths. Mr Hunt said that between 135 and 270 women “may have had their lives shortened as a result” and added that there were “likely to be some people in this group who would have been alive today if this had not happened”

The independent review of the breast screening programme will be chaired by Lynda Thomas, Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support and Professor Martin Gore, Consultant Medical Oncologist and Professor of Cancer Medicine at The Royal Marsden, and is expected to report in 6 months.

In the meantime, women who are concerned can seek advice by calling a dedicated national helpline on 0800 169 2692 or go to the NHS Choices Website for further information.