MPs' fury over NHS handling of missing patient letters scandal

Whitehall report slams delays after 900,00 patient letters were lost or scrapped by private firm

  • Private firm admitted to mislaying documents between 2011-2016
  • 900,000 letters have gone missing, including GPs advising patients they had cancer
  • NHS has no idea if any patients have been harmed as a result
  • MPs have hit out at NHS response to the incident, which was first reported 18 months ago

Around 900,000 letters are believed to have been mislaid

Furious MPs have slammed the NHS over its handling of a data scandal in which more than 900,000 patient letters were mislaid.

Private firm, NHS Shared Business Services (NHS SBS), was contracted by the NHS to deliver documents between GPs and hospitals, but admitted to losing the medical documents between 2011-2016.

Some of these letters were believed to be from GPs informing patients they had cancer, but it is not known whether anyone was directly harmed as a result.

The scandal first came to light 18 months ago and this week MPs hit out at the NHS’s handling of the incident since then.

In a damning report by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee, NHS England and the Department of Health are heavily criticised for their ‘lack of grip’.

We will never know the scale of emotional distress caused to patients by the shoddy handling of NHS clinical mail

Labour MP Meg Hillier, chairman of the committee, said NHS SBS’s loss of the documents ‘beggars belief’, adding: “We will never know the scale of emotional distress caused to patients by the shoddy handling of NHS clinical mail.

“NHS England eventually stepped in, but, even now, huge volumes of mail are still to be properly assessed and we are far from confident health officials are on top of the issues.

“The hunt for further correspondence, and therefore potential cases of harm to patients, continues. It is vital to the peace of mind of patients that all necessary steps are taken – and quickly.

“Even then, taxpayers could be landed with the bill for further costs arising from fines or negligence claims.”

We were deeply unimpressed by the lack of grip NHS England still has on the handling on clinical correspondence and dismayed to be informed of a further backlog of 162,000 items which need to be assessed

An initial investigation by the National Audit Office estimated 709,000 items had been mislaid, but the MPs’ report claims there were a further 162,000 missing documents – 871,000 in total.

It is believed a proportion of the letters were dumped in the bin by employees who believed they were irrelevant and that up to 35 sacks were destroyed on the assumption they were ‘out of date’.

The MPs’ report states: “We were deeply unimpressed by the lack of grip NHS England still has on the handling on clinical correspondence and dismayed to be informed of a further backlog of 162,000 items which need to be assessed.

“NHS SBS badly failed the patients and GPs. NHS England and the Department of Health both failed in their oversight of NHS SBS.”

A spokesman for NHS England said it was told about the problem in March 2016 and that a team was quickly set up to sort through any issues. He added that the problem would be wholly resolved by March.

NHS SBS, which no longer handles NHS documents, added: “We have expressed our regret for this situation and co-operated fully with investigations.”

We were deeply unimpressed by the lack of grip NHS England still has on the handling on clinical correspondence

IT security experts have also reacted to the report, calling for better handling of patient data.

Tony Pepper, chief executive of Egress, told BBH: "This misplacement of close to a million pieces of seriously-sensitive correspondence is a symptom of a problem widespread throughout the public and private sector: the poor handling of data.

“Sadly, this instance shows us the truly-devastating effect the mishandling of confidential information can have - with blood tests, cancer diagnoses and treatment plans never reaching patients - with immeasurable consequences, by Public Accounts Commissions own admission.

“Undoubtedly, the NHS and the Government will be focusing on how to prevent this level of data mismanagement from ever happening again.”

Digitisation will not only make it easier to track and audit patient care; but will also reduce the propensity for human fallibility, which undoubtedly played a role in this case and does in the majority of data leaks and failings

And he added: "This digitisation of the NHS and patient records has been an ongoing project and is a mammoth task. However, instances such as these show how critical it is that the NHS gets its systems in check, to stop patients from falling through the cracks.

“Digitisation will not only make it easier to track and audit patient care; but will also reduce the propensity for human fallibility, which undoubtedly played a role in this case and does in the majority of data leaks and failings.

“Systems for the secure transfer of patient data are available and will go a long way to ensuring that nothing on this scale happens again."

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