Written by Emma Semwayo, medical negligence senior solicitor at Fletchers.
NHS breast screening is a hugely important weapon in the fight against breast cancer in the UK. One in eight women in the UK receive a diagnosis at some point in their lives and early detection and diagnosis are vital.
Breast cancer survival rates have doubled in the last 40 years but the chances of survival are dependent on the stage breast cancer is detected. The NHS screening programme offers women who are between 50 and 70 and registered with a GP an invitation to screening by a mammogram every three years. This is being extended in some areas to cover women aged between 47 and 73. The invitations should be sent regardless of your medical history or family history – women at increased risk may need earlier screening by MRI scan.
The screening program is designed to identify breast cancer early, which improves survival rates and lessens the necessity for treatment by mastectomy. This is why the announcement by the health secretary yesterday, that a computer error dating back to 2009 means that 450,000 women have not received their screening invitations, is so alarming. The Minister admitted that up to 270 women are likely to have died as a result. However, the true number of preventable deaths may never be known, as around 141,000 of the women affected are no longer living. His estimate of deaths is based on statistical models rather than patient records.
We see many cases where a diagnosis of breast cancer has been delayed either by inappropriate screening methods or a failure to act on results; this has devastating results for our customers and their families. However, the ramifications of a failure on this scale will not be known for years to come. Whilst the Minister’s independent review is welcomed, it is unlikely to provide solace to women receiving a late diagnosis of breast cancer over the coming months or to families of undiagnosed deceased.