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Cervical smear blunder affects thousands

More than 40,000 women left in dark over screening error

Adrian O'Dowd

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Doctors’ leaders have tried to reassure women following mistakes made over cervical screening information.

It has emerged that around 43,200 women in England have not received information regarding cervical cancer screening after a system error and the majority of the correspondence relates to appointment invitations or reminder letters, but also screening results.

All women aged between 25 and 64 are eligible for inclusion in the National Cervical Screening Programme, which involves screening most women for cervical disease every three or five years.

As part of a contract with NHS England, Primary Care Support England (PCSE) – the contract delivered by Capita on behalf of NHS England – supports the screening programme by producing and sending invitation, reminder and results letters to eligible women.

It is now clear that from January to June of this year for invitation and reminder letters, approximately 43,200 women due to receive letters were sent an invitation letter or a reminder, but not both.

For results letters, GPs are responsible for care, including contacting women who require further examination. GPs or screening clinics have the primary responsibility to notify women of their test result.

However, PCSE additionally sends letters to women informing them of their screening result and these letters are not part of the referral process.

Capita has admitted that a total of 4,508 results letters have been delayed this year, but said only a small proportion of these results required further examination, and they should all have been contacted directly by their GP.

The BMA said this was an “appalling” failure and it has written to NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens to express its concerns, describing this as the latest in a series of failings by Capita, while calling for Capita to be stripped of its contract.

The BMA said it was informing its GP members, alerting them to the situation and preparing practices for the concerns and queries that patients were likely to have.

Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair, said: “This is an incredibly serious situation, and it is frankly appalling that patients may now be at risk because of this gross error on the part of Capita.

“Some women will now be left extremely anxious because they have not received important correspondence, particularly letters about abnormal smear test results that need urgent follow up. This has been caused solely by Capita’s incompetence.

“Since it took responsibility for GP back room functions three years ago, Capita‘s running of these services has been nothing short of shambolic.”

An NHS England spokesperson said: “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.”

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, RCGP chair, said: “This error has put patients at risk, and it will undoubtedly cause women more anxiety. It is vital everything is done as a matter of urgency to rectify the situation, and ensure all affected women are informed – particularly those who have not received their test results.

“We urge women not to panic and to await further information - we understand that NHS England are already working to contact anyone who has been affected.”

A spokesperson 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.”

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