Inez Brown discusses how confidence in the breast screening process has been severely compromised following rogue surgeon Ian Paterson’s blunder in misdiagnosing and mistreating breast cancer
Being diagnosed with a lump in your breast and being advised you need an operation is a stressful situation in itself.
The process that follows involves further distress: telling the family you have an illness that is potentially life-threatening, advising your employer you will need time of work, and of course undergoing the operation itself. Imagine how you would feel if you subsequently found out that in fact none of this process was required?
Such was the situation for hundreds of women when it was recently reported that the police had launched an inquiry into an alleged rogue surgeon, Ian Paterson.
Mr Paterson was accused of operating on at least 450 women when they were perfectly healthy. He has since been suspended from practising.
For several hundred other women, the future is also uncertain. Mr Paterson is alleged to have performed partial mastectomies on at least another 700 women who did have cancer. However, the technique that he used may have increased the likelihood of the disease returning as the operation that he performed, known as a cleavage-sparing mastectomy, leaves some breast tissue behind for cosmetic reasons. This technique is not sanctioned in Britain due to the risk of the cancer returning.
The General Medical Council (GMC) decided to investigate Mr Paterson’s professional history earlier this year. He worked at several NHS and private hospitals across the Midlands from 1994 until he was suspended in October 2012.
Mr Paterson was first investigated in 2004 over the cleavage-sparing operations, but he was not advised to stop performing these operations until after the conclusion of an internal investigation by the Heart of England NHS Foundation in December 2007.
Gail Boichat, one of his patients who found out she was misdiagnosed with breast cancer by Mr Paterson, in February this year said: “I felt shock, horror, numbness. The words want to come out but you can’t say anything. You can’t speak.” She has contacted solicitors in order to seek compensation.
These allegations against Mr Paterson constitute the largest scale of clinical negligence encountered in the legal profession in over 18 years.
Mr Paterson said: “I am cooperating fully with the GMC investigation and cannot comment on any issues raised because of my duty of patient confidentiality and the ongoing investigation.”
Is it worth going for breast screening?
With confidence in the system severely dented, many women are wondering whether or not to put themselves forward for breast screening.
Screening for breast cancer has assisted practitioners in diagnosing breast cancer for more than two decades. Women aged between 50 and 70 are usually invited to have a mammogram every three years in order to help to catch cancer early and for treatment to be given in an attempt to save lives.
However, there is now some controversy around the concept of “overdiagnosis”, as screening might correctly identify a tumour, but the tumour might never have caused any harm. In such cases these women would have lived full and healthy lives but have instead undergone unnecessary treatment such as surgery, hormone therapy, chemotherapy or radiotherapy – all of these not without considerable side-effects. It is still unclear as to which tumours could be deadly and which should be left alone.
An independent review took place this year in relation to ‘the benefits and harms of breast cancer screening’. The review panel was led by Professor Michael Marmot, from University College London. He said: “Screening has contributed to reducing deaths…but also resulted in some overdiagnosis.”
He also said that it was vital that women were informed about the potential harms and benefits before going for a mammogram.
Professor Sir Mike Richards, National Cancer Director, said: “My view is that the screening programme should happen, we should invite women to be screened and give women the information to make their own choice.”
Returning to the ‘Paterson blunder’, a spokesperson for the Spire Hospital Parkway, where he also worked, has indicated that they are looking at what they can learn from the events that have taken place. However, their priority is to have consultations with patients that have been affected in order to provide them with accurate information as a matter of urgency.
If you have any queries in relation to breast screening or a potential clinical negligence claim for misdiagnosis of cancer following breast screening, we offer a confidential, free initial discussion to investigate your issues with no obligation. Please do not hesitate to contact Inez Brown on free phone 0800 919 386 or firstname.lastname@example.org.