The NHS has admitted thousands of patients may have been affected by the loss of records that went undelivered over a period of five years
The NHS has acknowledged that it is investigating an estimated 2,500 cases in which patients may have been adversely affected by the undelivered documents, which included test results for diseases including cancer and treatment plans.
In total 708,000 pieces of correspondence were mistakenly stored in a warehouse instead of being sent to patients’ GPs or filed in their records, with about 200,000 of those being temporary change-of-address forms.
The documents were handled by a mail redirection company hired by the NHS and had either been incorrectly addressed or were to be re-routed because a patient had moved to a new GP surgery.
The private company, NHS Shared Business Services (NHS SBS), a joint venture of the Department of Health and outsourcing company Sopra Steria, has expressed regret over the issue, which took place between 2011 and 2016 and affected the East Midlands, the South West and north-east London.
The firm ceased handling post for the NHS in March 2016, coinciding with the discovery of the delivery failures, according to a report in The Guardian.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt disclosed the data loss in July of last year, but at the time didn’t say how many patients were involved.
The NHS said all the lost material has now been returned to some 7,700 GP surgeries.
Patient harm feared
A team of administrators gathered to investigate the failure is understood to be undertaking a review of patients who have died since March of last year to assess whether the missing documents may have played a role in those deaths.
“A team including clinical experts has reviewed that old correspondence and it has now all been delivered wherever possible to the correct practice,” an NHS spokesperson said.
Richard Vautrey, chair of the British Medical Association’s GPs committee, said the incident may have resulted in repeat prescriptions, delays in diagnosis and other effects.
“If that happened it’s at best an inconvenience to the patient, and at worst there’s a risk of patient harm,” he said.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said patient safety was put at risk as a result of “this staggering incompetence”, adding it showed the government’s “neglect” of the health service.
Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron, like Ashworth, criticised Hunt’s “deliberately evasive” statement to Parliament last July.
A Department of Health spokesperson said the department and the NHS had been “completely transparent” while working to resolve the issue.
“In July, the health secretary informed parliament and in September, senior civil servants updated the public accounts committee,” the department said.
But Katherine Murphy of the Patients Association said confidence in the NHS’ ability to handle confidential information had been “eroded”.
Shared services organisations, set up to cut costs by consolidating services across a single or multiple government organisation, are increasingly coming under criticism for service failures that have at times been considerable in scale.
In a separate incident that has come to light in recent days, Defence Business Services, a Department of Defence shared services centre, has been condemned for a procurement system implemented in December that has left its suppliers out of pocket to the tune of millions of pounds’ worth of unpaid invoices.
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