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A private contractor lost patient data, but the BBC blamed the NHS

The BBC opens with “NHS misplaced half a million documents,” The Guardian went with “NHS accused of covering up data leak.” Were you to read the mainstream media this morning then you might be forgiven for thinking our National Health Service was putting patients at risk. In reality, the fault lies with a private company. However, “private company fails the NHS” isn’t a snappy headline.

Between 2011 and 2016, 500,000 documents containing medical information were mistakenly filed for storage instead of being forwarded to GPs. This included important items like test results for cases as personal as cancer biopsies. Investigations are now under way into 2500 of the highest risk cases. The cost of these investigations has already reached £2.2million as medical experts are brought in to individually assess cases.

A further investigation will also take place into whether the loss of documents played a role in the death of patients. A 50 strong team of administrators have also been brought in to resolve the mess left by the private company.

The company, NHS Shared Business Services, is partly owned by the Department of Health and partly by French company Sopia Steria. The government’s aim was to use a private company to increase efficiency within the NHS. Their poor record largely affects NHS England. Only 41 pieces of missing correspondence were from NHS Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. NHS England has the highest levels of private involvement.

Despite the fault being with a private company this hasn’t stopped the BBC and the Guardian running with headlines attacking the NHS. The company responsible is mentioned in the body of the text but the focus is overwhelmingly on attacking the NHS itself. An attack inconsistent with the experts on the subject.

Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, was highly critical of the private contractor. Stating that “Patient care and safety must always be the number one priority when awarding private companies contracts for any work in the health service. What we are seeing here is companies bidding for, and being awarded, contracts for work that is much more complex that they originally thought.”

When these contracts turn out to be too complicated for the private company they then pass responsibility back to the NHS. A process that in this case has cost the country £2.2million and requires 50 administrators.

Katherine Murphy of the patients’ association was also critical of the damage the outsourcing had done. “Patients trust the NHS to look after their confidential information and this confidence is now eroded.” In this case the information was taken outside of the NHS itself and subsequently lost. This reveals an ineptitude that the media seems reluctant to cover.

Privatisation has never been a way forward for the NHS but now the media are providing tacit support for it. Their refusal to acknowledge the problems in the private sector is damaging to our health service as it is increasingly blamed for the flaws of private companies. The BBC and The Guardian should know better than to protect private companies at the cost of the NHS.

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