NHS cancer patients hit by treatment delays after cyber-attack

Hospitals across the country were forced to cancel routine procedures and divert emergency cases after malware attack

A week ago, Alice found out that she had bowel cancer. Doctors fast-tracked the 62-year-old for treatment and she was due to meet her consultant on Monday. But on Friday her appointment was cancelled after the NHS was hit in a global cyber-attack.

“It’s devastating to hear you have cancer in the first place and anything that delays you getting any treatment that could be life-saving is even more devastating,” she said. “Everything depends on access to computer records so my treatment will be delayed. This makes me feel my survival chances have been reduced.”

Alice – not her real name – is one of many cancer patients who are likely to have had their treatment delayed or postponed due to the ransomware attack that affected 45 NHS sites. The spread of the malware, which is designed to disrupt or gain access to a computer system, was halted at most sites on Saturday but not until after hospitals cancelled routine procedures and diverted emergency cases.

Alice, who is being treated at Blackpool teaching hospitals NHS foundation trust, fears her cancer may have spread to her bones and is waiting for a CT scan. The consultation on Monday was to let her know how developed her cancer was, but doctors cannot access her test results after the attack.

NHS England has yet to release data on the total number of patients affected but delays are expected this week. It is believed six trusts are still affected.

One is Barts health NHS trust, which operates five hospitals in London. The trust said in a statement on on Sunday: “As our hospitals are still experiencing some delays and disruption, we would ask the public to use other NHS services wherever possible.”

It said clinically urgent appointments would be prioritised. “Where we need to cancel planned appointments, we will be contacting patients directly to make them aware and we apologise for any inconvenience caused,” it said.

Irene – not her real name – 62, from London, is also a bowel cancer patient, and was due to have chemotherapy at St Bartholomew’s, one of the trust’s hospitals, on Saturday. “I got to the hospital and was told the treatment was not ready because the cyber-attack had happened before pharmacies had time to get it sorted,” she said.

Irene, who has treatment every two weeks, is unsure when she will have her next chemotherapy session. “I do get wonderful treatment, Barts is a fantastic hospital but ... it’s made me really stressed because you psych yourself up to have treatment. It’s long – chemo is about six or seven hours.”

She said she had planned to go away this weekend but may have to reschedule as she is often unwell after chemotherapy. “It means I cannot do the nice things I had planned and if you are having treatment every two weeks the nice bits are important,” she said.

Barts health said it had been having difficulties because certain types of chemotherapy require computer access. “We are very sorry for any delays and cancellations that patients have experienced during this disruption. We are doing all we can to keep cancellations to a minimum at our hospitals and we are prioritising clinically urgent appointments. Every decision to cancel an appointment is reviewed by a senior clinician,” a spokesperson said.

There were reports of computer problems at the trust – unrelated to the cyber-attack – this month. It had to cancel 136 operations, as well as hundreds of cancer treatment sessions following a major IT failure

Cancer charities have expressed concern about the impact of delayed treatment. Fran Woodard, the executive director of policy and impact at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “There is often an anxious wait between hospital appointments for patients and their loved ones.” She said that for them to be cancelled or delayed would “only add to any distress”.

Cancer Research UK’s executive policy director, Sarah Woolnough, said treatment cancellations were distressing, and particularly frustrating when the cause was technology failure.

Deborah Alsina, the chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK, called for the NHS to be given the right resources to ensure such an attack does not happen again.

Dr Mark Porter, the council chair of the British Medical Association, said: “This cyber-attack on NHS information systems is extremely worrying for patients and the doctors treating them. There have been reports of hospital doctors and GPs unable to access patients’ medical records, appointment booking systems and in some cases having to resort to pen and paper.

“We need to quickly establish what went wrong to prevent this happening again and questions must also be asked about whether inadequate investment in NHS information systems has left it vulnerable to such an attack.”

Dr Anne Rainsberry, the NHS incident director, said: “The NHS has continued to treat patients throughout the weekend. We have been working with 47 organisations providing urgent and emergency care who have been infected to varying degrees. Most have found ways of working around this but seven, including St Barts in London, have asked for extra support.

“If you have a hospital appointment you should still attend unless you are contacted and told not to. We have also been offering advice and assistance to GP surgeries, who will open as usual tomorrow. Again, if you have an appointment you should still attend unless contacted and told not to.

“People should continue to use the NHS wisely and remember that they can seek help and advice from a range of other sources, such as pharmacies and NHS 111. Bearing in mind the impact of the global cyber-attack I would urge people to be patient with staff.”


Sarah Marsh

The GuardianTramp

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