The National Health Service (NHS) has come under fire this week by MPs in the Commons for even more poor data handling. Already this year on numerous occasions the NHS have been in the media spotlight due to incompetence, such as earlier this year when we revealed that one of London’s biggest NHS trusts, Imperial College Healthcare, were involved in an investigation into 25 patient deaths due to shoddy data management.
This latest judgemental error on the NHS’ part stems from the fact it has now emerged that hundreds of thousands of confidential patient letters are being typed up by low-paid workers in India. After a patient visits his or her doctor, the doctor will speak into a tape recorder and dictate exactly what is to go into the patient’s referral letter. This saves the doctor a lot of time as usually a medical secretary can be delegated this task instead.
However shockingly it has recently come to light that instead of using UK workers, the NHS are laying off these staff and instead setting up contracts with private firms abroad (such as in India), whereby these recordings are dispatched overseas and then returned a few weeks later. MPs are now warning there is a risk of ‘tragic consequences’ due to mistranslation from the Indian workers and especially after many doctors have started to complain that there are numerous errors visible on the patient letters.
Labour MP John Spellar, blasted this practice and said, “There is a safety issue. There’s the potential for something to go tragically wrong. If someone gives the wrong advice, and this is not picked up, then a patient could be misdiagnosed, or seen less urgently than they should be.” He further touched upon the current dire job situation in the UK, with more and more people being made redundant and said, “Unemployment in the UK is at unacceptable levels and the economy is suffering the worst double dip recession since the Second World War. Medical secretaries are being downgraded or laid off. This is work that could easily be based and carried out in the UK, maintaining jobs and keeping opportunities for our young people.”
Spellar was successful in obtaining statistics from the Freedom of Information Act, which provide more insight into the scale of the issue. In fact the figures show that in 2011/12, an incredible 234,000 letters were dispatched to India by the West Middlesex University Hospital trust in West London. In addition, Kingston Hospital in south-west London did the same for 17,000 letters, Epsom & St Helier did for 11,000, and The Whittington, in Archway, was about 90,000.
Many of the NHS trusts in question have tried to defend themselves and deflect even more criticism to come their way. They argue that is no danger of a breach in patient confidentiality because names and dates of birth are removed prior to being sourced abroad.
Despite this though, only last week in the Commons, former health secretary Andrew Lansley revealed that his own local hospital, Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, had originally been sending letters to India but then stopped this eventually after ‘seeing the quality of service that could be delivered here’.
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