A report following investigation into cancer care at West Hertfordshire Hospitals has disclosed that 810 patients in whom cancer was suspected were referred to Watford General Hospital but were automatically removed from its appointment list without ever being seen.
These errors have inevitably led to care being delayed for hundreds of patients and put lives at risk, although the full extent of their impact remains unclear. Alarmingly, the investigation also found that senior managers had been warned 12 months earlier that patients were at risk of dying because of the failings.
Part of the issue appears to be that some appointments were fixed for patients, who were not then advised of the date and time. When the patients did not attend, they were automatically discharged because of their non-attendance or were offered non-urgent appointments. This led to significant delays or some patients not being seen. It affected a large population in West Hertfordshire, including Watford, Hemel Hempstead and St Alban's from January 2010 to November 2013.
The problems apparently came to light only after a local GP voiced concerns that a patient had been discharged without having being seen. Despite those concerns being highlighted in 2012, no steps were taken to address the difficulties with the appointments system.
Naomi Holland, an associate in Penningtons Manches' clinical negligence team, comments: “It is very worrying that despite systems being in place to ensure that patients with suspected cancer are seen as an urgent case, these administrative errors have caused unnecessary and potentially harmful delays to patients. With a clear emphasis on early diagnosis and treatment to allow the best outcome for patients, it is incomprehensible that, even after being notified of this problem, NHS managers did not act to correct the situation and to protect patients.
"Unfortunately, we have dealt with many claims arising out of failures to make urgent referrals, often with devastating consequences. To prevent similar occurrences in the future, patients should be notified of the timescales in which they should receive an appointment, so that they are properly informed and ready to take steps to try to ensure they do not experience any unnecessary delays in their own treatment.”