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Cervical Cancer Screening blunder affects nearly 50,000 women

Earlier in the month it was reported by the Guardian that private company, Capita, failed to deliver important cervical cancer screening letters to around 47,000 NHS patients.

In 2015, Capita were contracted by the NHS to provide additional primary care services. In particular, they were responsible for arranging and reporting thousands of women’s smear tests between January and June this year. However, due to inexcusable administration errors, around 50,000 women were not invited for their cervical smear examination, and nearly 5,000 experienced delays in their results being reported.

Recently my colleague, Naomi, wrote a blog about the importance of early detection of cervical cancer, and the drive to encourage women to attend for their smear tests. Sadly, this latest news does little to instil the public’s confidence in the screening programmes as a whole.

Delays in women having their smear test, or having their results reported, can have devastating implications. Thankfully, thus far, there is no evidence that any women have been significantly harmed as a result of Capita’s blunders, but frankly, it is appalling that so many women could have been subject to serious harm as a result of basic administration errors.

Worryingly, this isn’t the first time a private company has put patients at risk due to administration errors within cancer screening programmes. In May this year, around 270 women missed invitations for breast cancer mammograms, again due to administration errors.

As a result of both incidents, this week, NHS England has announced a major review of cancer screening programmes. It will provide recommendations about how services can be improved, including possible changes to the services that are currently outsourced. Indeed, the British Medical Association have already been calling for Capita’s contract to be revoked and for the screening services to be brought back “in-house”.

Private contractors are paid millions by the NHS to fulfil these contracts and it is vital that, in turn, they ensure they have appropriate measures in place to provide an effective service. For example, aging IT systems are said to be putting lives at risk, and with technology receiving a lot of the blame for these administration errors, contractors need to invest in essential IT infrastructure and training to ensure similar, elementary errors are avoided in the future.

Screening programmes do work, and they save lives every day. It is devastating to think that blunders like this may destroy women’s confidence in the system; we need to be confident that we can rely on appropriate call back procedures and that the system is safe and fit for purpose. Sadly, my team at JMW know all too well the devastating impact delays in the diagnosis of cancer can have.

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