Rogue Radiologist: Eighteen women told they have breast cancer... after blundering medics gave them the all-clear
18th September 2009
Eighteen patients were wrongly given the all-clear from breast cancer, it emerged yesterday.
The women have been informed that a bungling consultant missed signs of their disease during routine screening.
They are now undergoing debilitating treatment but doctors admit the delay might have harmed their survival chances.
The rogue radiologist failed to carry out proper tests on at least 85 patients over three years.
New checks resulted in 14 women finding they were in fact suffering from breast cancer. Another four are in the early stages of the disease.
The hospital concerned - Accrington Victoria in Lancashire - has refused to reveal any details about the consultant.
And, highly unusually, it failed to publicise the fact that hundreds of cases were being reviewed.
Instead it waited until it had completed its investigation before admitting what had happened.
Roger Goss, of Patient Concern, an independent support group, said this course of action went against fundamental principles of openness and transparency.
'People should be entitled to know if there is someone there who is iffy, as they may want to avoid having tests there,' he said.
'We have always argued that when these things happen, the information should be available on hospital websites so people can take precautions if they wish. Otherwise, this is frightening for women.'
The errors were made in analysing routine mammograms carried out every three years on women aged between 50 and 70.
Patients whose results gave cause for concern were sent back for more detailed checks.
But colleagues raised concerns that the experienced consultant reassessing the women was closing cases without performing the full range of tests, including biopsies on abnormal tissue.
They examined his records and decided to look again at the mammograms of 355 patients.
That led to 85 patients being told that the all- clear they had been given might have been a mistake.
The 85 were re-examined, and 14 were given the devastating news that they were in fact suffering from invasive breast cancer, the most common form of the disease.
Another four were found to have ductal carcinoma in situ, an early stage of breast cancer where abnormal cells are present in milk ducts but have not spread.
At least one of the women is thought to have been suffering from cancer for three years. All are said to be in the early stages of the disease and are undergoing treatment, with what doctors say are good prospects of recovery.
Many are expected to take legal action over the hospital's failure to ensure the radiologist was doing his job properly.
Rineke Schram, medical director of East Lancashire NHS Trust, which runs the hospital, said: 'On behalf of the trust, I would like to apologise for any distress and anxiety caused.
'The delay in identifying the women with breast cancer does mean there has been a delay in these cancers being treated.'
She said medics were confident no other women had been misdiagnosed. The trust has, however, set up a helpline for worried patients.
It said the radiologist had not been on screening duty since December and would not work in the NHS until the investigation was concluded.
It is common practice to suspend consultants accused of wrongdoing on full pay, likely to be in excess of £100,000 a year.
Dr Alexis Willett, of the charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: 'Any type of misdiagnosis is extremely worrying, therefore we hope that appropriate measures are put in place as soon as possible to reassure women and to ensure that this does not happen again.'
Emma Pennery, clinical director at Breast Cancer Care, said: 'This news that 18 women have experienced a delay in diagnosis will undoubtedly cause anxiety among those that have undergone breast cancer screening at this hospital.
'While women should be reassured that a full review has been conducted, it is understandable that individuals may have concerns, and we would urge them to contact the hospital's helpline.'
Health campaigners in East Lancashire have criticised their NHS trust for closing the A&E department at nearby Burnley hospital, and they said the missed cancers raised further questions about its management.
In 2005, it emerged that 18 women had wrongly been given the all-clear for breast cancer by radiologist Amjad Husien, who worked at Trafford General Hospital and North Manchester General Hospital.
At least one later died and survivors received compensation payouts of up to £60,000.
In 2000, it emerged that the West of London Breast Screening Service had given more than 100 women the wrong results. Eleven had developed breast cancer, one of whom died.
WHY DELAYED TREATMENT CAN BE COSTLY
Delays in treating cancer in the 18 women wrongly told they were in the clear may have a serious impact on their survival prospects.
Yesterday East Lancashire NHS Trust said it was impossible to know whether the delay had increased their odds of having a mastectomy --or worse consequences.
But health experts say it is vital for women to be screened for breast cancer as soon as they are invited. The programme is believed to save the lives of 1,400 people a year by spotting tumours before lumps even become apparent.
Since the programme was established in the late 1980s, it has screened more than 19million women and has detected 117,000 cancers. Last night a spokesman for Breakthrough Breast Cancer said there was 'no doubt' that earlier screening reduces the chances of a woman having a mastectomy.
Under the screening programme, patients have a mammogram - a type of X-ray image of their breasts. Radiologists look at these for signs of tumours. If they spot any specialists then suggest treatments.
Catching the tumour before it becomes too big means women can undergo the milder treatments of chemotherapy and radiotherapy-Early detection also means it is less likely that the cancer will have spread to other parts of the body. If it has spread treatment is much more difficult and the chances of survival are reduced.
Mammograms are supposed to be looked at by more than one radiologist to ensure no cases are missed. It is possible that in East Lancashire this guideline was not adhered to.
Dr Alexis Willett, of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: 'What is important is that measures are put in place to ensure it doesn't happen again. Of vital importance is that mammograms are double checked to validate the quality of work that people are carrying out.'