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News

Should you be worried about the breast cancer screening scandal?

15 May, 2018

breast screening

In one of the largest NHS scandals in recent years, it was revealed by health secretary Jeremy Hunt last week (2nd May) that an estimated 450,000 women aged between 68-71 were not invited for a routine final breast screening due to a computer error. Mr Hunt estimated that this could have cost up to 270 women their lives. But is this all that it seems?

Mr Hunt has revealed that 65,000 letters have been sent to those affected, and further letters and invitations to screenings are to be sent out within the next week. These will be sent to the 309,000 women who are still alive, as some have died of other causes since the scandal began. 

A helpline has also been set up, but it was revealed this week that staff for the helpline have only received one hour of training. Mr Hunt argues that call handlers were unable to complete their training until he had made the announcement in parliament, which he judged to be the priority. As a result, the helpline was set up at very short notice and there was little time for training.

Scandal or fear mongering?

In less than two days of the helpline being set up it dealt with more than 8,000 phone calls. Does this suggest that the NHS is not equipped to deal with a scandal of this size? Or does it instead show an unnecessary panic caused by fear mongering? Experts have suggested that there does not need to be as much fear surrounding the computer error as there appears to be.

Breast cancer screenings are offered to all women aged between 50-70, every three years as long as they are registered to a GP. These screenings are believed by most experts to be beneficial in detecting breast cancer earlier.

The scandal affects women who were due to receive their final breast cancer screening. Due to a computer error, invites for screenings were not send out to 450,000 women. The error dates back to 2009, but it was not discovered until January 2018. The reasons why it wasn’t announced until May have not been disclosed by the government.

Screenings doing ‘more harm than good’

In response to the scandal, a group of 15 health experts wrote to The Times arguing that these routing screenings actually ‘do more harm than good’. They added that rather than women being the subject of ‘fear mongering’ they should instead just ‘carry on with their lives’ unless they have noticed a lump or any other symptoms.

The group, which consists of academics and GPs, added that: "The breast screening programme mostly causes more unintended harm than good, which is slowly being recognised internationally.

"Many women and doctors now avoid breast screening because it has no impact on all-cause death."

Their reasons for this statement are that screening does not prevent the most advanced and dangerous cancers. In addition, there are issues surrounding women being ‘over diagnosed’ due to breast screenings. While around one in every 200 women screened are estimated to be saved through the programme, it is also estimated that around 3 in 200 are diagnosed with cancer that would never be life-threatening, meaning that three times more women are being offered unnecessary treatment than the number being saved.

A 2012 study suggested that breast cancer screening reduces the chances of dying from breast cancer by 20%, but a later study instead suggested that the figures are more likely to be around 10%.

Whilst there is no harm in taking up the offer of the breast screening that will now be offered to these women, it is important to note that the so-called scandal is unlikely to have life-threatening effects. Breast screenings are not the only way to detect cancer, and while they are a helpful indicator they are not the be all and end all of cancer detecting. It goes without saying though that anyone noticing symptoms or lumps should always go to their GP.