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Up to 270 women may have died due to breast cancer screening IT failure, says health secretary

Computer algorithm failure caused 450,000 women to miss their breast cancer screenings – some of whom will have "had their lives shortened" by the error, Jeremy Hunt has admitted

An algorithm error in the breast cancer screening invitation IT system has caused 450,000 women to miss their screenings, health secretary Jeremy Hunt has admitted.

Breast cancer screenings are offered to all women between the ages of 50 and 70, but speaking in the House of Commons today (2 May), Hunt said a serious failure with the IT system led to a huge number of women in England, between the ages of 68 and 71, not being invited to their final screenings between 2009 and early 2018.

The fault was discovered by Public Health England, which oversees the programme on behalf of the NHS, earlier this year. Hunt said that when the organisation was analysing trial data from the service, it discovered “there was a computer algorithm failure dating back to 2009”.

“At this stage, it is unclear whether any delay in diagnosis would have resulted in any avoidable harm or death,” he said, but added that “our current estimate”, which is based on statistical modelling, “is that there may be between 135 and 270 women that had their lives shortened as a result”.

“The issue came to light because an upgrade to the breast screening invitation IT system provided improved data on the actual ages of the women receiving screening invitations,” Hunt told the Commons.

“Further analysis quantified the problem and has found a number of linked causes, including issues with the system’s IT and how age parameters are programmed into it.”

Public Health England alerted the Department of Health and Social Care to the problem in January 2018, and urgent work has been undertaken to ensure the error was corrected.

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Hunt has now ordered an independent review into the programme, which will include examining the processes and IT systems in place.

Of the 450,000 women affected, the government said 309,000 are still alive, and promised to contact all those affected via a letter by the end of the month.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said his thoughts are with those whose screenings were missed, and criticised the programme for taking so long to notice the error. “Eight years is a long time for an error of this magnitude to go unreported,” he said.

Norman Lamb, former Liberal Democrat health minister and chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said Hunt must look at whether “a broader review of other population screening programmes is needed” to ensure this never happens again.

“It is also vital the use of algorithms in healthcare is closely monitored to ensure we can fully trust the technology to operate in the interests of patients,” said Lamb.

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