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NHS lost further 162,000 patient documents, PAC hearing reveals

NHS England CEO Simon Stevens admits a further 162,000 lost patient documents have been found, following news earlier this year that a probe had discovered more than 700,000 documents went undelivered

NHS data loss scandal reached new heights as NHS England CEO Simon Stevens revealed that further investigation has found another 162,000 “lost” patient documents, in addition to the previously discovered 700,000 documents, of which more than 500,000 included sensitive patient data

It came to light earlier this year that NHS England had launched a probe into a series of missing documents, which found that a total of 708,000 patient letters went undelivered.

Around 200,000 of them were temporary resident forms and therefore not clinical documents, but the remaining 500,000 documents included information such as “copies of test or screening results, and communications about planned next steps in treatment following appointments with other healthcare providers”.

Between 2001 and 2016, the letters were mistakenly put into a warehouse run by the NHS Shared Business Services (NHS SBS) – a joint venture between the Department of Health and Sopra Steria – rather than delivered to their intended recipients. 

During a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing on 16 October, Stevens revealed that the number of patient letters that were put into storage, rather than delivered to their intended recipients, was significantly higher than first thought. 

Stevens said that following the discovery of the original 700,000 documents, further investigation into the lost correspondence found another 12,000 missing items that had not been processed by NHS SBS, as well as 150,000 medical documents that had been sent to Capita by mistake.

The original investigation found 5,562 documents which needed further clinical investigation. NHS England said a review of 97% of those has so far found no clinical harm to patients as a result of the data going astray. However, the new documents now need to go through the same process.

“We think there are probably about 150,000 items or so that require repatriation back to GPs and we aim to do that by the end of December. The situation hasn’t changed, but we have become very rigorous in making sure we’re lifting every stone, and that’s what we’ve identified,” Stevens said.

He added that the review of the newly found documents would hopefully be completed “by the end of March”, but with the caveat that it depended on “the volume of responses we get back from GPs”.

Severe criticism

The new revelations were heavily criticised by members of Parliament (MPs) during the PAC hearing, with PAC chair Meg Hillier calling it a “complete shambles”.

PAC member Geoffrey Clifton-Brown pointed out that although the documents that have been gone through so far haven’t uncovered any patient harm, this could change with the new data.

He asked: “Until you have sifted through them, you don’t know if there is a serious case out there where someone is dying because the notes haven’t been transferred. So when are you going to get on top of this situation dealing with all this backlog?”

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable has called on health secretary Jeremy Hunt to update parliament on the situation, which he called a “colossal blunder” that has turned out “even worse than previously thought”.

“The safety of thousands of patients has been put at risk due to incompetence and lack of proper oversight by the government,” he said. “Jeremy Hunt must urgently come before Parliament to explain what steps are being taken to prevent this from happening again.”

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GPs have been paid £2.2m to cross-check the letter with patient records, but not all GPs asked have responded to the request, despite being paid to do so.

Former national director for transformation and corporate operations at NHS England, Karen Wheeler, said they had chased up the GPs that haven’t responded.

“We wrote to them and said that, ‘On the basis that we have paid you and haven’t heard from you, we are working on the assumption that you have action in hand, or that they are deemed to be no harm’,” she said.

“We do have to rely on those GPs to do the job we have asked them to. We are assuming that when we write to GPs, pay them and require them to do things,  that does get paid attention to by the GP.”

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