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March 2, 2017

NHS ‘lost’ 500.000 documents with patient-sensitive material

NHS Shared Business Services misplaced nearly 500.000 documents containing medical information over a five-year period. The documents were meant to be delivered to GPs, but instead were stored in a warehouse. The documents contain information regarding blood tests results, cancer screening results, biopsy results and correspondence relating child protection.

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The medical documents went missing between 2011 and 2016. Although the British government learned of the mishap in March 2016, it took until now for ministers and officials to admit the mistake in parliament. Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, was summoned by the Commons to explain why the documents were stored in a warehouse, instead of delivered to GPs like they were supposed to. The Guardian exposed the scale of the loss of patient-sensitive material, including biopsy and cancer screening results.

Compensating affected patients

NHS England is still investigating 537 cases to establish if a patient’s health has been damaged because of the blunder. This could very well be the case, since the documents included details of patients’ visits to hospitals, oncology clinics and information about certain diagnosis. Other paperwork included summaries of the care patients had received while in hospital.

Meg Hillier, the chair of the public accounts committee, stated that the department of health could have to pay compensation to any patient whose health may have suffered as a direct result of the misplacement.

Patient safety

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt allegedly knew of the incident back in March 2016. However, he decided to not acknowledge the non-arrival of medical reports until July 2016, in a brief statement to MPs. He also mentioned it in the health department’s annual report and accounts. Hunt claims no one had access to the documents, since they were placed in a warehouse and held securely, and states that the only true blunder was the failure to deliver the documents to GPs. As things stand, there is no evidence so far that any patient safety has been put at risk, he said.

Most documents came from east Midlands

Labour is pressing Hunt to publish where patients affected by the loss of material lived. Internal documents show that 250,530 (49%) of the documents related to patients in the east Midlands. 25% involved people in the south of England, while 15.6% related to people in London. 10% of the documents affected people in the north of England. Dorset, Essex and Nottingham are the areas with the largest number of cases involving the lost paperwork.

The formerly lost material has now been returned to 7.700 GPs. They have collectively been paid £2.2m to examine the returned documents. They then have to cross-check it with the material already in the patients’ medical records.

The scandal once again shows just how important it is to keep medical data safe. Now that patient documents and information are more and more often stored online, the discussion around privacy and security should not be avoided. After all, it’s not necessarily the misplacement of files that is the biggest issue here, it’s the fact that no one knew where they were. This could just as easily happen online. The mishap should be a warning for governments worldwide: keep track of patients medical files, and keep them secure.

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