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Breast Cancer Screening – Why Should Jeremy Hunt Resign For Something Done Under Gordon Brown?

by | 3rd, May 2018

The National Health Service has never been very good at dealing with all this complicated computer technology stuff. The attempt, nuder Blair, to rewrite the computing system for the whole shebang spent billions – yes, really, billions of pounds – and ended up delivering nothing that anyone has ever used to produce anything of value. That was actually the world’s largest cock up ever. We also know why it happened. They tried to design the system, rather than just designing the rules about how systems should talk to each other.

That is, you don’t try to build a computer system for 65 million people, you only design interfaces so that different systems can communicate.

Now we’ve another dubber up in NHS computing. Something that should have been caught, this is just something that should not have happened:

Up to 270 women may have died as a result of an IT failure that meant hundreds of thousands approaching their 70th birthday were not invited to a National Health Service breast screening appointment.

It costs money to screen people for breast cancer. Therefore we only want to screen those either likely to have it or those we might be able to treat effectively if they do. Men do indeed get breast cancer sometimes but at a rate about 1% that of women. So, we don’t screen men and we do screen women. There’s absolutely nothing at all wrong with the idea that we don’t screen everyone for everything.

With breast cancer screening we go on to make another choice. This is a little more arguable, but just an extension of the same principle. Women up to 70 are offered screening every three years. Those over 70 are not. The argument being that even if a cancer is found in those over 70 then the costs of treating it won’t be worth it for the extra years of life gained. Yes, harsh, and arguable, but we don’t have an unlimited amount of money for anything and everything and so some limits do need to be imposed.

And then we get to the problem here:

Mr Hunt told the Commons the problem was caused by a “computer algorithm failure”, which led to some women not receiving their final breast screening when they were between the ages of 68 and 71. The problems happened between 2009 and the start of 2018.

The computer code which sent out the appointments for screening was wrong. It should have been sending letters, booking appointments, for women up to the age of 71 – it only sent them for women up to the age of 68. This is simply a bollix in the construction of the code. The programmers, the system designers, the managers who signed off on it, all were in the wrong. And that’s it really. Sure, mistakes happen in complex systems and this one did and shouldn’t have.

we’ve absolutely no information at all about who has died as a result of this. We think, perhaps, that some will have done. Using the same statistical models that we use to decide that screening should be done up to age 70 and not afterwards. But that’s it, we cannot say that Mr’s Smith died because she wasn’t screened, we just don’t know and never will at that level of detail.

Then we’ve got the usual interjection of politics:

The Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, a former health minister, said it was essential the review investigated the use of algorithms in healthcare, saying they should be “closely monitored to ensure that we can fully trust the technology to operate in the interests of patients”.

Sigh. This isn’t an algorithm, this is a programming error. Lamb is just hitching this to all those fashionable concerns about what Facebook and Google are up to.

There are also, inevitably, calls for Jeremy Hunt to resign. Which is pretty odd, for why should a Tory Minister resign in 2018 for something which was done under a Labour Government, when Gordon Brown was PM, back in 2008/09?



Posted: 3rd, May 2018 | In: News Comment | TrackBack | Permalink