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NHS Inquiry into potential harm caused to thousands of patients due to undelivered mail

It was reported yesterday that the NHS has launched a patient safety inquiry after a private contractor, an IT company called Cerner, failed to send more than 28,000 pieces of confidential medical correspondence to GPs due to a technical error.

This correspondence covered discussions between patients and their doctors at various outpatient appointments at Barnet and Chase Farm hospitals in north London, between June 2019 and January 2020. Patients affected live in the London Boroughs of Camden, Islington, Haringey, Barnet and Enfield. This will no doubt be very concerning for any patients who attended outpatient appointments at the hospital during this period. People may be anxious that they are one of the affected patients, and if they are, what does any delay in sending the correspondence mean for their diagnosis and treatment plan? The NHS has now launched this inquiry to recognise that this event has created a risk to patient safety, to get to the bottom of the reasons why, and to rectify any mistakes made. The hospital has commented that to date, no harm has been identified but it may be too soon to assess the true picture.

This once again raises important questions about the ability to maintain standards when NHS services are contracted to private companies. In November 2017, it was revealed that a firm called NHS Shared Business Services, which had a contract to deliver documents between GPs and hospitals, mislaid a total of 871,000 items between 2011 and 2016. This caused huge distress and harm to patients, who experienced delays in receiving their diagnosis and follow up plans.

Patients need to feel confident in the services the NHS provides. I hope that this current independent inquiry will look carefully at the risks of private companies being given contracts to carry out work on behalf of the NHS. We need to see recommendations for how high quality coordinated care can be delivered in the NHS, and how patients can be safeguarded against possible harm caused by simple errors over communications.