Computer fault results in letters sent in error

Media release

20 November 2020

The Ministry of Health’s National Bowel Screening Programme is apologising to people who were mistakenly sent a letter inviting them to participate in bowel screening even though they have, or have previously had, bowel cancer.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says the letters were generated by a computer fault and sent without the appropriate automatic filtering taking place.

“We know that coping with cancer is uncertain and stressful and we are sorry we have added to that distress through this unfortunate error.”

Our investigations indicate 1262 people in the Tairāwhiti, Canterbury and South Canterbury DHB areas were sent the letters.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Andrew Simpson says the Ministry has already spoken to more than 200 people who’ve rung in after receiving the letters.

“In many cases they have understandably been upset at the letters arriving when they already have, or have had bowel cancer.

He says the callers to the Ministry have been supportive of the screening programme and have been understanding about what’s happened under the circumstances. 

“We have apologised and explained we are taking steps to ensure this won’t happen again.”

He says a similar apology in writing is being provided to everyone who received the letters in error.

The fault was caused by the failure of an automatic data download from the national cancer registry that didn’t generate an alert as it should have done. 

“The names of patients on the registry, who had previously been diagnosed with bowel cancer, should have been taken out of the list of people invited for screening but that didn’t happen.”

A manual fix is already in place and the Ministry is working on a permanent fix that will prevent the letters being automatically generated if the filtering step isn’t completed.

In the first instance anyone concerned should ring the Ministry’s National Bowel Screening programme on 0800 924 432.

Media contact

Peter Abernethy
021 366 1111

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