‘Outdated’ computers are used to run NHS cancer screening programmes

‘Outdated’ computers used to run NHS cancer screening programmes need to be ‘radically upgraded’, review warns as charity fears patients could die if they miss appointment invites

  • A review by a former NHS cancer director found IT systems are unfit for purpose
  • Patients’ lives could be at risk if the screening programme doesn’t improve
  • The review comes after a year of screening scandals in the NHS in England 

The computers used to run the NHS’s cancer screening programmes are outdated and unfit for purpose, a review has found.

People may be dying because crumbling IT systems mean they face delays to screening invitations or don’t get them at all.

An investigation into how well the regular testing schemes – which look for signs of breast, cervical and bowel cancer – is being run by Sir Mike Richards, the former NHS cancer director.

In early findings he has said the UK is ‘lagging behind’ on improving the programmes, which predominantly affect women.

Online booking, out of hours appointments and text reminders should be launched to improve the potentially life-saving services, he said.

Sir Mike Richards, the former cancer director for the NHS, is conducting a review of how well the NHS’s routine cancer screening programmes work

‘At a national level, inadequate IT makes monitoring the safety and quality of current screening programmes difficult, if not impossible,’ Sir Mike said.

‘At a local level, these same deficiencies make it difficult to ensure that those who should be invited for screening are being called and recalled at the right intervals.

‘This needs to change as soon as possible.’

The independent review led by Sir Mike, who was once the Care Quality Commission’s top hospitals inspector, began after a year of screening scandals.

Some 450,000 women were last year told they might have missed important routine mammograms because computers weren’t set up properly.

The true figure turned out to be 67,000, but the ‘misunderstanding’ scared hundreds of thousands into thinking they had missed vital tests.

And more than 50,000 women were not sent invitations or test results for cervical screening exams because of a ‘human error’ at outsourced company Capita.

Capita has since been stripped of the NHS’s cervical screening programme contract.

Sir Mike said: ‘Our screening programmes have led the world and save around 9,000 lives every year.


Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced in May around half a million women might have missed their routine breast screening because of a ‘computer algorithm failure’.

The announcement caused ‘unnecessary significant distress’ experts said, when it was announced last week the true number of women affected was 67,000 – and they were all followed up within months.

Some women weren’t sent invites because NHS computers were calculating their ages wrong and either sending their first invite too late or their last one too soon.   

Early warning signs of the blunder first cropped up in 2016, a report revealed last week, up to two years before Mr Hunt was told and revealed it in Parliament.

Experts found 85 per cent of women caught up in the initial uproar were worried without reason because officials did not fully understand what was happening before they went public.

‘However, people live increasingly busy lives and we need to make having a screening appointment as simple and convenient as booking a plane ticket online.

‘The technology exists in many other walks of life and by adopting it across the NHS we can help identify even more cancers early when they are easier to treat and save more lives.’

The NHS sent out more than 11million invitations for screening appointments last year.

But the proportion of women taking part in cervical screening is the lowest it has been in 10 years – only 71.4 per cent of eligible patients were up to date on screenings in March 2018.

Sir Mike’s report said the decline in numbers of women taking up breast and cervical screening can be stopped and should be reversed as a priority. 

It said the IT systems used to manage these programmes need to be ‘radically’ updated.

And added: ‘Whilst these trends may not be unique to the UK – and the UK compares reasonably well to similar countries – the end result remains a missed opportunity to save yet more lives.’

Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: ‘The hard work of skilled and committed staff is being undermined in part by the crumbling infrastructure of the NHS, including inadequate IT systems.

‘The Government must take urgent action to help the NHS remove barriers to screening and ensure that all those who want to take part can do so easily.

‘Lives are potentially being lost as a consequence of doing nothing.’

Sir Mike’s full report will be published later this year. 

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