Thousands of women could have been put at risk after a private company failed to send out 48,500 letters about cervical cancer screening.
The system error - blasted as “frankly appalling” by the British Medical Association - was made between January and June, with letters not being issued by Capita, who run back office services for NHS England.
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It meant that thousands of Lancashire women were not invited to their regular cervical smear test - a potentially life-saving procedure that can catch cancer early.
An many more received incorrect information in letters - including one Lancashire woman who was told after cancer surgery that she could still have children, when in fact she had undergone a radical hysterectomy.
Around 4,000 of the letters were results of tests, the remainder were inviting women for screening or reminding them they were due.
Between 150 and 200 of the test results that were not sent out were regarding abnormal results.
The BMA claim the error has put patients at risk, but NHS England say there is no evidence of harm.
Dr David Wrigley, Lancashire GP and BMA GP committee rep for Cumbria and Lancashire, said: “GPs in Lancashire and across the country are extremely concerned to hear of this situation, in which patients may have been put at risk because of an unacceptable error caused by the incompetence of a private company.
“For many women, who may have missed these important letters, it will cause a great deal of worry, especially if they are awaiting results.
“The immediate priority must be the safety of our patients, and we have been assured that all those affected have been informed and advised on what they should do.
“However, NHS England must also take responsibility for the disastrous decision to award Capita the contract to run this service, along with other GP backroom functions, and the litany of failures that have preceded this latest incident.
“In the last three years, Capita has presided over a shambles and it’s high time NHS England stripped them of the contract, take the services back in-house and ensure they are run properly for the sake of patient safety.”
The British Medical Association (BMA) nationally has written to the chief executive of NHS England expressing its extreme concern.
Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chairman, said: “We know that, because of the nature of this procedure, many patients are already reluctant to attend these appointments, and therefore reminder letters are crucial to provide encouragement and reinforce the importance of having a cervical smear test done. Incidents like this, therefore, will hardly inspire confidence in the system and risk even fewer women getting checked.”
Adding that Capita’s running of services has been “nothing short of shambolic”, Mr Vautrey called on the Government to take the service back in-house.
NHS England has assured the BMA that it has written to those affected and informed GP practices.
An NHS England spokesman said: “Capita has alerted NHS England to an administrative failure in its processing of cervical screening, which means some women have not received invitation, reminder and result letters when they should have.
“Every woman’s case is being reviewed, but there is no current evidence that this incident has led to harm to the women involved, and our priority now is to ensure that anyone affected by this incident is contacted, and knows how to get checked if they are due a cervical screen.”
Capita said from January to June this year, approximately 43,200 women due to receive letters were sent an invitation letter or a reminder, but not both, and now letters are being issued to women who only received one letter to remind them to book and appointment, and to apologise.
A spokesman for Capita said: “The risk to women of this incident is low and there is no current evidence of harm, but Capita nevertheless apologises to both the NHS and to the women whose correspondence was delayed.
“We have investigated the precise circumstances around this incident, and it is clear that the correct process for uploading, organising and checking datafiles was not properly followed.
“When the problem was discovered, it was not immediately escalated to senior leadership, or NHS England, by the individuals responsible.
“Capita is investigating the managerial handling of the matter and taking appropriate disciplinary action. Additionally, a senior executive responsible for this contract has already left Capita.”
An independent audit team has been assigned to carry out a detailed review into operational systems and processes, and checks have been upgraded.
Robert Music, chief executive of cervical cancer charity Jo’s trust, said: “Frankly it is appalling that thousands of women have been affected by this system failure.
“Sadly we are not surprised as we have time and time again raised our concerns regarding the IT system supporting the cervical screening programme, including with the Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock.
“It was called not fit for purpose in 2011 yet no progress has been made. This is a disgrace and the fact that it is now affecting women both in terms of being invited and getting their results is completely unacceptable. An urgent review must be conducted to ensure that our cervical screening programme is safe and future proofed.”