Saturday 5 May 2018

Britain, already no country for old men with prostate cancer, is now confirmed as no country for old ladies with breast cancer

We know that Britain is no country for old men with prostate cancer and Jeremy Hunt, the Government Health Secretary, came to Parliament on Wednesday to confess that up to 450,000 older women in England may have somehow fallen off the breast cancer screening system, thanks to a computer glitch. He said it was likely there were women who “would have been alive today if this had not happened” and that up to 270 lives may have been shortened.

This is explained, but not excused, by a faulty computer algorithm and a glitch that wrongly cancelled some women’s scans and crept in accidentally in 2009, during the setting up of a pilot project. However, as Gaby Hinsliff said in the Guardian : 'Nonetheless, eight years is a hell of a long time for nobody to notice. Older women – that perennially invisible group – can be forgiven for wondering whether it would have happened to anyone else.' 

The women in question would have been in their late 60s when their scans were cancelled and perhaps in their 70s when they started getting sick. They’re of the generation that waits to be served, doesn’t like to bother anyone and trusts the people in charge to know what they’re doing. When the letters stopped coming, they must have just assumed they’d had their quota from the National Health Service and they were of an age when old ladies, as well as old men, get used to dropping off people’s radar. But isn't it to avoid such human blind spots, that algorithms are used by our public services exist in the first place? Aren't machines meant to excel at routine tasks like churning out appointments and not make emotional judgements about what you can expect at your age ?

You might expect that :

Jeremy Hunt would have seen to it that the 450,000 unscreened women, no doubt, some of them very worried indeed that they might be suffering from undiagnosed cancer, would be treated to a Rolls-Royce of a help-line to provide them with information from trained clinicians and allay their fears. A Public Health England spokesperson indicated that would be the case and said : “We are committed to ensuring that affected women and their families receive all the support they need. We are aware that the helpline is busy, particularly at peak times. We have built additional resilience into the system to ensure that as many people are able to receive support as possible.”

In fact, in the event, that was not the case because :

* the contract to run the help-line was given to Serco, a multinational outsourcing company that runs government services, including prisons, and call-handlers were told about the news at noon on the day Hunt revealed the issue in the House of Commons and training in how to handle calls was delivered two hours later with the helpline up and running by 4pm.

* as one handler said : "We found out at noon and were delivered training at 2.30pm. We were then taking taking calls live at 4pm. Normally we get two weeks training and this was one hour and a half It is ridiculous, there’s no way we could take in all that information in that amount of time.”

* in the event, call-handlers with no medical experience had only one hour’s training relied on a cheat sheet of symptoms with one, who contacted the Guardian, saying the sheet was “all over the place and hard to understand. It looked like it had been typed up and sent out as soon as possible.”

* handlers were given a booklet which included a page that listed symptoms of breast cancer, which they were supposed to go through, if need be, with the callers,

* as one handler said : “I felt ashamed knowing what had happened to these women, taking these calls when I am not medically trained, have no counselling background and am in no position to help them. Other people I work with feel the same. A girl who was working yesterday said taking calls was horrendous as people were getting really upset. People also cannot deal with the volume of calls coming through. We are not trained to be dealing with those type of things.”

* the three call centres in Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle were inundated with 5,000 on Wednesday, rising to 10,000 on Friday.

Not unsurprisingly, Jonathan Ashworth MP, the Shadow Health Secretary, said : "It seems the outsourcing firm Serco is running the hotline with staff who have no medical background or training in counselling, responding to women on these calls. There are of course huge questions that remain unanswered about this tragic scandal but the government’s priority must also be to ensure adequate resources are in place to give women the help they need.”       

The rushed response to setting up the helpline is even more inexcusable when one realises that the Government had known about the screening error since January.

The late Rita Towsey and Trixie Gough, their story :                                                                                         

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