Up to 270 women may have died from breast cancer due to computer glitch

A "computer algorithm failure" stopped letters from being sent to women.

A "computer algorithm failure" stopped letters from being sent to women. Photo: Getty

Up to 270 women in England may have died prematurely from breast cancer due to a computer error inside the UK’s health service.

British Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Parliament that 450,000 women missed out on breast screenings after a “computer algorithm failure” stopped letters from being sent to them, reminding them to have a check-up.

The true human cost of the IT failure has yet to emerge.

There are women who may have died and the grief it caused their loved ones, and there are the women who may have avoided gruelling treatment.

Under the UK health system, Patricia Minchin was due to have a mammogram five years ago after she turned 70, but the notification never arrived.

Two years later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

“I look back now and think everything that happened since could possibly have been avoided or lessened,” Ms Minchin told the BBC.

“The whole journey I went on, the traumatic journey, all the treatment, may never have had to have happened.”

NHS could face massive compensation bill

Speaking at the House of Commons, Mr Hunt said between 2009 and the start of 2018, an estimated “450,000 women aged between 68 and 71 were not invited to their final breast screening”.

He went on to say that their current best estimate was that there may “be between 135 and 270 women who had their lives shortened as a result”.

But Mr Hunt said those estimates came with caveats as it was based on on “statistical modelling rather than patient reviews”.

“And because there is currently no clinical consensus about the benefits of screening for this age group,” he said.

The error remained undetected for eight years until Public Health England — which oversaw the program — discovered the problem after it began analysing data from the screenings.

Massive compensation bill

Baroness Morgan, the chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, said the failure to notify so many women about their screenings was unacceptable.

“I feel extremely sad for the women affected by this colossal administrative disaster really,” she said.

“It’s hugely significant, we have to be concerned generally about confidence in the screening process, but we need to know how it has happened.”

An independent review has been launched and the Minister has apologised for the failures in the system.

It is thought that women in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were not affected.


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