Cover-up claims over NHS data breach affecting thousands

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Thousands of patients are feared to have been harmed after the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) lost more than half a million pieces of confidential medical correspondence, including test results and treatment plans.

The Guardian reports that in one of the biggest losses of sensitive clinical information in the NHS’s 69-year history, more than 500,000 pieces of patient data sent between GPs and hospitals went undelivered over the five years from 2011 to 2016.

The mislaid documents, which range from screening results to blood tests to diagnoses, failed to reach their intended recipients because the company meant to ensure their delivery mistakenly stored them in a warehouse.

The report says NHS England has quietly launched an inquiry to discover how many patients have been affected. So far 2,500 cases that require further investigation to discover potential for harm have been identified. The NHS is spending millions of pounds paying doctors to assess the scale of the medical impact. It is also undertaking a clinical review of patients who have died since the loss of documents was discovered in March 2016 to examine whether delays in material reaching GPs played any part in any patient’s death.

The correspondence included the results of blood and urine tests, and of biopsies and screening tests for diseases including cancer. It also included letters containing details of patients’ visits to hospital, including to oncology clinics and information about what they had been diagnosed with after visiting A&E. Other paperwork that went astray included summaries of the care patients had received while in hospital. Some involved material related to cases of child protection.

In total, 708,000 pieces of correspondence were undelivered. However, 200,000 of these were not clinically relevant as they were temporary change of address forms.

The report says NHS England secretly assembled a 50-strong team of administrators, based in Leeds, to clear up the mess created by NHS Shared Business Services (NHS SBS), who mislaid the documents. The private company, co-owned by the Department of Health and the French firm Sopra Steria, was working as a kind of internal postal service within the NHS in England until March last year. The clear-up team is being led by Jill Matthews, the MD of the primary-care support services arm of NHS England.

The report says documents seen detailing the team’s work reveal it has finally returned the lost material to 7,700 GP surgeries, and assessed how many potential incidents of harm may have occurred at each practice. They show that GP surgeries up and down England have been affected, with some facing a few dozen cases of potential harm arose from missing correspondence.

The British Medical Association warned that some patients might have taken extra drugs unnecessarily or had the diagnosis of their illness delayed because of the blunder. “This is a very serious incident, it should never have happened and it’s an example of what happens when the NHS tries to cut costs by inviting private companies to do work which they don’t do properly, the private company in this case being NHS Shared Business Services,” said Richard Vautrey, chair of the BMA’s GPs committee and a family doctor in Yorkshire.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “This is an absolute scandal. For a company partly owned by the Department of Health and a private company to fail to deliver half a million NHS letters, many of which contain information critical to patient care, is astonishing.

“Patient safety will have been put seriously at risk as a result of this staggering incompetence. The news is heart-breaking for the families involved and it will be scarcely believable for these hospitals and GPs who are doing their best to deliver services despite the neglect of the government.”

An NHS England spokesperson is quoted in the report as saying: “Some correspondence forwarded to SBS between 2011-2016 was not redirected or forwarded by them to GP surgeries or linked to the medical record when the sender sent correspondence to the wrong GP or the patient changed practice.

“A team including clinical experts has reviewed that old correspondence and it has now all been delivered wherever possible to the correct practice. SBS have expressed regret for this situation.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “The department and NHS England have been completely transparent while work has been ongoing to resolve this issue, with patient safety as ever our first priority. In July, the health secretary informed parliament and in September, senior civil servants updated the public accounts committee.”

The Guardian report

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