The tragic consequences of a failure to diagnose cancer, either through computer, administrative or human error, was highlighted once again by the widely reported death earlier last month of Julie O’Connor.
Mrs O’Connor died from cervical cancer despite having had six ’negative’ smear tests at Southmead Hospital in Bristol. Shoosmiths handled a similar case where our client was in her early 30’s when she was eventually correctly diagnosed with cervical cancer. Our client knew that, due to the misdiagnoses which prevented her early treatment, her life expectancy was limited and tragically she died in hospital at only 34 years of age.
Life-long impact of misdiagnosis and misreporting
These repeated failures leading to needless deaths are not just recent episodes. As far back as 1995 eight women died as a result of misreporting of tests at Kent and Canterbury Hospital. The fatal consequences of misdiagnosis and misreporting make the headlines for obvious reasons and of course, the needless death of a loved one is the ultimate tragedy for any family.
However, less well publicised, but equally harrowing, is the plight of those women who survived and whose families are forced to live with the consequences. The same errors at Kent and Canterbury Hospital that killed those eight patients also meant that 30 women had to undergo what were unnecessary hysterectomies. As a result of systemic or human failures, many women and their families have been caused needless, life-long distress, suffering and pain.
Greatest impact on younger woman
For many young women between 25 and 35 years old, delay or misdiagnosis of cervical cancer in particular can have catastrophic consequences. Since a radical hysterectomy is often required in these cases, the opportunity to start or expand a family will be lost. Many such young women are also left with bladder damage and lymphoedema, all of which could have been avoided.
Eroding confidence in test results has public health implications
Misreporting also has broader public health implications. The importance of routine screening to allow early detection and treatment is stressed by the medical community. Where these tests are interpreted correctly, they do undoubtedly save lives – an estimated 5,000 each year through routine cervical screening for example.
However, of the approximately five million women in the UK invited to cervical screening each year, one in four do not attend. This rises to one in three among women aged 25 to 29. A cervical smear is not a pleasant experience, so it is understandable that many young women may be less than enthusiastic about attending when invited.
However, the likelihood of many more missed appointments (and hence missed opportunities to detect and treat cancer early enough) is greatly increased when confidence in the accurate interpretation of test results is undermined by misreporting, whether as a result of systemic or human failures. Whatever their cause, these failures must be addressed as a matter of urgency.