Cancer test blunder sees Capita scrutinised for NHS outsourcing role

19 November 2018 5 min. read

Scandal-stricken professional services firm Capita has reportedly come under heavy fire for its mishandling of almost 50,000 letters relating to cancer screening information across England. The company, which has worked as an administrative support outsourcer for the NHS since 2015, failed to send the letters to patients, which included crucial information such as hundreds of abnormal results in their contents.

In reports first circulated by the Financial Times, The British Medical Association has written to the Chief Executive of NHS England to express its “extreme concern” that hundreds of women had not received vital information concerning cervical cancer screenings. The medical notes had not been sent, following a system error on the part of contractor Capita, which the Financial Times also suggested faces losing its NHS deal over the botched delivery.

In 2015, Capita first won a 7-to-10-year contract to supply administrative support to the NHS. The contract was said at the time to be worth as much as £1 billion, but has in fact seen Capita make a significant loss. Following a succession of complaints by GPs, the embattled firm – which has spent 2018 attempting to improve its prospects following a shock profit warning – was forced to invest £130 million to improve its service provision on the essential contract. The deal is supposed to see Capita supply GPs, opticians, pharmacists and dentists with a range of back-office services, including payments administration and the management of clinical records across England.Cancer test blunder sees Capita scrutinised for NHS outsourcing role

Earlier in the year, Capita also came under fire alongside fellow outsourcer Atos for the reported mishandling of as many as a third of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments they carried out. The firms received a raise for their efforts last year, raking in more than £250 million each for the controversial disability welfare checks, despite Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee recently suggesting vulnerable people had been “pushed to the brink of destitution” by the contractors’ handling of the scheme.

In Essex, meanwhile, while Capita recently won a contract to boost NHS connectivity in the region, the firm was also forced to withdraw its sponsorship of this year’s Social Worker of the Year Awards after a nominee and a judge protested against its involvement. Capita carries out resourcing and recruitment functions for the East of England authority, and had been listed as the sponsor of the ‘Championing Social Work Values’ award category, in partnership with Essex council. The charity Social Workers Without Borders, which was shortlisted this year, and Nick Berbiers, who was on the judging panel, both declared they would boycott the event if this did not change, however.

Now, as the firm seemingly stumbles from one crisis to another, Capita has been lambasted for what NHS England labelled an “administrative failure”, which saw 48,500 letters to women telling them of cervical screening dates or containing test results go unsent. According to further reports in the British press, 4,000 of the letters included test results, while the remainder invited women for screening or reminded them of test dates. While NHS England said Capita had alerted it to the error and claimed there was “no current evidence that this incident has led to harm to the women involved”, between 150 and 200 are understood to have included details of abnormal results.

“At risk of serious harm”

The news will prompt further examinations of comments from the National Audit Office in May 2018, when the organisation warned that the NHS’ contract with Capita – viewed as dimly as a cost-cutting measure by some critics – had led to failures which put “patients at risk of serious harm.” The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament. As well as the danger which the failures posed to patients, the body also noted the performance issues incurred by Capita had caused the NHS to spend more than £10 million to rectify them, while Capita had at that time had £5.3 million deducted by NHS England as penalties for poor performance.

The National Audit Office subsequently proposed that NHS England should consider taking back in-house part of the contract. Following this latest blunder, it is now understood that Capita is in talks with NHS England to return part of the work covering cervical cancer screening.

At the same time, in a bid to stop the rot, Capita has confirmed it is investigating the matter internally. Capita has appointed an independent audit team, led by PwC, to “review operational systems”. It also apologised to “both the NHS and to the women whose correspondence was delayed.”

Capita is not the only outsourcer to have faced a turbulent 2018 in Britain’s outsourcing industry, however. Elsewhere, major government contractor Carillion, which was one of the Ministry of Defence’s biggest outsourcers, famously collapsed in January, while concerns surrounding the future of embattled firm Interserve also look set to continue.