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Breast cancer screening error may have impacted an extra 140,000 women

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Over a hundred thousand more women may have missed out on vital breast cancer screenings because of a computer failure

A medical expert has claimed that over a hundred thousand more women may have missed out on vital breast cancer screenings because of a computer failure.

Earlier in May, health secretary Jeremy Hunt told the Commons that a 2009 IT error affected 450,000 women in England aged between 68 and 71, leaving them uninvited to breast cancer screenings – but a letter published in The Lancet yesterday says that the problems date back to 2005.

‘Data that could have alerted people to the lack of invitations being sent to women aged 70 was publicly available, but no one looked at it carefully enough,’ said Peter Sasieni, one of the authors of the letter, a leading cancer expert and professor at King’s College London.

‘Some of the fault lies in the way the data were presented, but it is also unclear whose responsibility it is to monitor such outcomes.’

‘It is important that the computer systems used to run our cancer screening programmes are reviewed and, if necessary replaced – and that detailed anonymous data are made available for independent scrutiny.’

Between 2004 and 2005, the breast cancer screening programme was extended to include women up to 71 years of age but Prof Sasieni found that the number of women in the affected age group who were invited was considerably lower than that of those aged between 55 and 64 – by roughly 2-3%.

From his findings, the difference amounts to an extra 140,000 women who missed out on their invitations between 2005 and 2008 – creating a total number of 502,000 women missing out on mammograms since 2005.

However, Public Health England (PHE) have claimed that these findings are ‘flawed’.

‘This is a flawed analysis which fails to take into account some important facts, such as when the breast screening programme was rolled out to all 70 year olds in England or when a clinical trial was started called Age X,’ said John Newton, director of health improvement at PHE.

‘Our top priority is making sure that all the women that did not receive an invitation for a screen are supported. The independent review will look at all aspects of the Breast Screening Service to identify any lessons PHE and the NHS can learn.’

An independent review is now underway into how the error may have had an effect on 270 women who died from breast cancer during this time.

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