'Blunder' Over Cervical Cancer Screening Letters

Peter Russell

November 14, 2018

A private NHS service provider apologised over failings in the way it dealt with tens of thousands of women in England who were eligible for cervical cancer screening.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said a failure by contractor Capita to send letters about screening tests amounted to an "appalling" failure.

The BMA said it understood that the majority of the correspondence related to appointment invitations or reminder letters.

It called on NHS England to cancel the contract with Capita and take Primary Care Support England (PCSE) services back in-house.

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) said it was the latest in a long series of errors by the company, but urged patients not to panic.

NHS England promised that the case of every woman involved would be reviewed. 

'Errors Were Made'

The problem appeared to involve around 43,200 women who between January and June 2018 should have received an invitation, and a reminder, letter about a smear test but only received one piece of correspondence. 

Capita said it was writing to all women who had experienced a delay in receiving letters. 

Capita also confirmed there had been a problem issuing test result letters.

In a statement online, Capita said: "We are writing to the women who only received one letter to remind them to book an appointment and to apologise for the delay in sending a reminder letter. The scale of the screening programme should be borne in mind: approximately 9 million letters are produced and sent each year to women in England.

"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. PCSE additionally sends letters to women informing them of their screening result and these letters are not part of the referral process. A total of 4508 results letters have been delayed this year. Only a small proportion of these results required further examination, and they should all have been contacted directly by their GP."

BMA Alerts GPs to Concerns

The BMA said it had alerted GPs that patients would be contacting them with concerns and queries. 

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."

The BMA said Capita's running of back room services had been "nothing short of shambolic" and that its failing were putting patients' lives at risk.

''Patients  at Risk': RCGP

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the RCGP, commented: "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. Our GP members will also be extremely concerned and need to be comprehensively informed as to how to advise patients for the best.

"This is the second blunder of its kind this year, and we all need answers about why this has happened and assurance that it will not happen again."

The RCGP said it did not believe that Capita had understood the scope and complexity of the work when it bid for the contract.

An NHS England spokesperson said: "Capita has alerted NHS England to an administrative failure in its processing of cervical screening, which means some women have not received invitation, reminder and result letters when they should have. 
"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."


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