Call handlers for breast cancer screening hotline 'not medically trained'

Call handlers for the Government's breast cancer screening hotline are not medically trained and are relying on a "cheat sheet" of symptoms, it is reported.

According to the Guardian, workers have raised concerns that mistakes could be made in the handling of women's cases as they have been given just one hour of training.

The hotline was set up on Wednesday after Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt revealed that 450,000 women aged 68 to 71 had not been invited to their final routine screening.

An independent review has been launched into the computer error, which was discovered in January but dates back to 2009 and could mean hundreds of women have had their lives cut short.

More than 10,000 calls have already been made to the hotline, which is being run by outsourcing firm Serco.

The company said its call handlers had been taking details using information provided by Public Health England (PHE) and that the women would later be contacted by health professionals.

But an unnamed member of staff is quoted in the Guardian as saying: "I felt ashamed knowing what had happened to these women, taking these calls when I am not medically trained, have no counselling background and am in no position to help them."

Another said she feared a lack of knowledge from those taking calls would "cause more mistakes".

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt makes a statement to MPs in the House of Commons over the breast cancer screening programme (PA)
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt makes a statement to MPs in the House of Commons over the breast cancer screening programme (PA)

The paper reports that workers were given a booklet which included a list of breast cancer symptoms that they could go through with callers if they asked.

Labour's shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the women affected "deserved better than this".

In a post on Twitter, he added: "Ministers promised distressed women affected by the breast cancer screening failure a dedicated hotline. Instead they have a Serco line with staff who apparently have no medical or counselling training."

Serco said all its call handlers were "trained and experienced in providing contact services on behalf of public service customers".

A spokesman for the firm added: "They are using information and advice provided by Public Health England and are required to collect details of women who believe they have missed screening, so they can be contacted by health professionals, and to set out the options available.

"On Friday, as an example, we were able to answer 99.5% of all calls received at our centres."

PHE said "well-trained staff" would ensure callers "receive the best possible information and support".

A spokesman added: "We are aware that the helpline is busy, particularly at peak times. We have built additional resilience into the system to ensure that as many people are able to receive support as possible."

On Friday, it was claimed that concerns over the breast cancer screening programme had been escalated to a senior health official last year.

Two NHS trusts in London and the West Midlands raised concerns some women were not being invited for mammograms as early as March 2017.

Hitachi Consulting said at the time it was a local problem and the full scale of the issue was not realised until January, PHE said.

But according to a source, tests revealed the software was working as designed and the concerns were escalated to a senior PHE official overseeing the programme.

Hitachi Consulting has denied it is responsible for the blunder, while PHE said it was "100 percent focused on providing advice and support" to those not invited to their final screening.

Women in England between the ages of 50 and 70 are currently automatically invited for breast cancer screening every three years.

Of those who missed invitations, 309,000 are estimated to still be alive and all those living in the UK who are registered with a GP will be contacted before the end of May.

All women who were not sent an invitation for their final screening will be given the opportunity to have a new appointment.

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