Up to 270 of 450,000 British women who missed breast cancer screens because of computer error died…or maybe not

Medics screen scans for breast cancer. Image: Garo/Phanie/Rex/Shutterstock
Medics screen scans for breast cancer. Image: Garo/Phanie/Rex/Shutterstock

It was announced…that, between 2009 and 2018, a computer error meant that 450,000 women aged around 70 in the UK were not sent their final breast screening appointment letter. These women were mistakenly not offered screening that may have picked up a cancer that had developed since their last check three years before. Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt announced in Parliament that “there may be between 135 and 270 women who had their lives shortened”. This has been reported as “up to 270 women died”.

There are three reasons why this claim is misleading.

First, Hunt said this was the number of women who “had” their lives shortened. But this is not strictly accurate  -  few of these women will have actually died of their breast cancer yet.

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Second, even a claim of reduced life expectancy would be questionable, as Hunt made clear in his announcement but which remained unreported. There is only weak evidence that screening helps prolong life.

But the third issue is that, contrary to popular belief, screening also does harm . The current NHS leaflet states that, for every 200 women attending screening between the ages of 50 and 70, we would expect one to have her early death from breast cancer prevented, but three to be unnecessarily treated for a harmless cancer that would not have troubled them.

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Read full, original post: Why breast screening error stories are getting death stats wrong

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