‘Test failings put diabetes sufferers’ sight at risk’

FAILINGS in a screening service set up to prevent diabetes sufferers from going blind put almost 17,000 patients in Camden at risk of losing their sight, it has been revealed.

Diabetic retinopathy is claimed by health experts to be one of the most common causes of blindness in Britain.

In 2008, a new screening programme using hi-tech cameras to detect the early onset of eye problems among diabetes patients – some as young as 12 – was launched by Camden and Islington Primary Care Trusts (PCT).

Moorfields Eye Hospital, the Whittington Hospital, the Royal Free Hospital and University College London Hospital were the four centres who signed up as service providers.

But less than two years later – in November 2009 – the scheme was suddenly suspended due to the “severity” of its failures, sparking an immediate investigation by Camden’s director of public health.

Among the shortcomings uncovered by the inquiry was an inability to collate a single patient list, which resulted in 28 patients going “missing in the system”. There was also a lack of training opportunities for staff.

Major concerns were also raised about the “poor human resources practices” relating to recruitment.

Most Read

Most worrying were a series of oversights in which immigrant employees, who only had permission to work in Britain for up to a month, were taken on in ongoing key positions.

The report, discussed at a Camden PCT meeting last Monday, states: “At the point the programme was suspended approximately 16,800 patients were involved and therefore had potentially been put at risk of harm.

“It was not possible to quantify the actual patient harm prior to the investigation as this required a look back and recall excercise, which at the time had not been completed.

“It was acknowledged that the potential degree of harm suffered could be as serious as sight loss.”

Optician Simon Krestin, of Douglas and Tobin in Highgate, said he had warned that the programme was heading for disaster when it started.

“They decided they were going to use cameras and the Diabetic Asociation set down guildlines, which Camden and Islington decided to totally ignore and do their own thing.

“The way they did it is that the chosen opticians had no training to operate the cameras and no training to read the screens. I wrote to all my patients saying this is going to go really wrong.”

Mr Krestin said the project had failed because the PCTs had tried to do it “on the cheap” and had not bought enough cameras for the number of diabetes sufferers in Camden and Islington.

He added that there was a good chance someone had gone blind in the time that the screening service had been cancelled.

In May this year, Camden PCT attempted to get the programme up and running again in a new, improved form – but at present it is only recalling the most urgent patients.

A spokeswoman for Islington PCT said: “Since the suspension NHS Islington and NHS Camden have been actively working to address all the concerns raised in order to recommence the service and to recall patients identified as needing further review.

“An interim service is due to be established in December 2010 or the following month at the latest.”