NHS data loss scandal left at least 1,788 patients facing potential harm

At least 1,788 cases of potential harm to patients have been identified after more than 700,000 items of unprocessed patient data were buried in an NHS warehouse for up to a decade, a government watchdog has warned.

Hundreds of thousands of items of patient data were lost (Photo: JH Lancy)
Hundreds of thousands of items of patient data were lost (Photo: JH Lancy)

A report published on Tuesday by the National Audit Office (NAO) reveals that as of 31 May 2017 no case of actual harm caused by the loss of patient data had been identified.

However, 1,788 cases of potential harm to patients have been found to date, and this figure could yet rise significantly.

Thousands of GP practices have been sent backlogs of data to assess, and a third of those that have received unprocessed information have yet to report back to confirm whether they have found cases of harm or potential harm to patients, the NAO said.

Lost NHS data

The NAO report says that NHS England is estimating that the cost of the incident will rise to £6.6m for administration alone - but this does not include the potential cost of compensation for patients or penalties that could be imposed by the Information Commissioner's Office.

GPonline reported in December 2016 on a deal struck by the BMA to pay GPs to begin processing more than 100,000 items left by mistake in a data warehouse.

It later emerged that more than 700,000 items had not been transferred to practices as they should have been, and that the DH had kept this quiet to stop practices being inundated by enquiries from worried patients.

The NAO report shows that NHS Shared Business Services (NHS SBS) - a private company part-owned by the DH - took on 21 contracts with primary care trusts between 2008 and 2012 that 'explicitly included a service to redirect clinical and other correspondence which had been sent to the wrong GP or other clinical providers'. When NHS SBS took on an East Midlands contract in 2011 it found a backlog of 8,146 items of unprocessed correspondence.

This backlog had grown to 435,000 items by the time NHS SBS reported the incident to NHS England in March 2016, the NAO report says - and to a staggering 709,000 by February 2017. At least one practice has received patient information including child protection data that dates back to 2005 - before NHS SBS held contracts for primary care support services.

Patient care

Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee deputy chair said: 'The failings of this private company identified in the NAO report are completely unacceptable and it is a disgrace that this service failed so badly that patient care was being compromised. The handling and transfer of clinical correspondence is a crucial part of how general practice operates and it's essential that important information reaches GPs as soon as possible so that they can provide the best possible care to their patients.

'The public should have confidence that their records are up-to-date and that communications related to their treatment are being speedily dealt with. Patients will rightly be angry that this private company, contracted by the NHS, has failed practices and patients to such an extent.

'At a time when the NHS is under incredible funding pressure, we can ill afford to spend £6m to clear up this administrative mess that has resulted from SBS’ failures.

'We now need ministers to ensure that this disastrous situation never occurs again and that patients have a system that they can depend on.'

An NHS England spokesman said: 'NHS England was deeply concerned to be belatedly informed by SBS in March 2016 about its backlog of unprocessed correspondence. We immediately set up a team, including clinical experts, to manage the incident, and all relevant correspondence has now been sent back to GPs for review. None of the patients whose cases have been reviewed to date have been harmed by the delay in correspondence.'

Safety risk

A DH spokesman said: 'As the NAO report highlights, patient safety has been our first priority and no cases of harm have been identified to date.

'Alongside NHS England, we have been very mindful of appropriate transparency while working to make sure this does not happen again - last year the health secretary updated parliament and the public accounts committee was informed.'

A spokeswoman for NHS SBS said: 'Today’s NAO report highlights a number of failings in the mail redirection service provided to NHS England. We regret this situation and have co-operated fully with the National Audit Office in its investigation. All of the correspondence backlog has now been delivered to GP surgeries for filing and NHS England has so far found no evidence of patient harm. NHS SBS no longer provides this mail redirection service.'

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