More than 18 months after the DH and NHS England were informed that a huge backlog of clinical correspondence had been found, a report from the House of Commons public accounts committee says MPs are 'deeply unimpressed by the lack of grip NHS England still has' on the problem.
The report warns that almost 2,000 patients are still being assessed by NHS England to determine whether they have been harmed by the mishandling of correspondence, and MPs said NHS England had 'assumed without evidence' that a further 102,000 patients had not suffered harm.
MPs were 'dismayed' to be told last month that a further backlog of more than 160,000 records had been identified - on top of 709,000 identified initially.
NHS data mishandled
The public accounts committee has set deadlines for NHS England to complete reviews of mishandled correspondence - calling for all unprocessed correspondence to be identified by the end of 2017, and all correspondence to be reviewed, with a report sent back to MPs, by 31 March 2018.
The committee also warned that it was 'unacceptable' that NHS England had decided to 'assume' that patients from around 2,000 GP practices were unharmed - because the practices had not confirmed whether they had reviewed clinical correspondence from the backlog.
NHS England should obtain positive confirmation from all practices that they have reviewed correspondence from the backlog that related to their patients by 31 March 2018, the MPs say.
NHS England and the DH were initially informed that the backlog of data had been found by NHS Shared Business Services (SBS) - a company part-owned by the DH that ran primary care support services until this was outsourced to private provider Capita.
An NHS England spokeswoman said: 'NHS England was deeply concerned to be informed by the SBS company in March 2016 about their backlog of unprocessed correspondence. A team of doctors and other NHS staff was quickly set up to sort through the issues. Fortunately there is no evidence that any patient has been harmed, and the whole matter is on track to be resolved by March.'
Public accounts committee chair Meg Hillier MP said: 'We will never know the scale of emotional distress caused to patients by the shoddy handling of NHS clinical mail – a failure in service delivery which stretches back years and has still to run its course.
'It beggars belief that those tasked with tackling a rapidly expanding backlog of correspondence did not recognise its real-world significance.
'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.
She said that GPs had been paid to check through the backlog of correspondence and should be asked to confirm the results from their reviews, despite the likely impact on their workload.