A series of hospitals have admitted using cheap secretarial agencies in India
PUBLISHED:10:53 EST, 10 September 2012| UPDATED:19:25 EST, 10 September 2012
Hospitals are sending hundreds of thousands of confidential letters about patients to India to be typed up by poorly-paid workers.
NHS trusts have been accused of laying off their secretaries and instead dispatching patients’ notes more than 6,000 miles to save money on staffing costs.
In the last year, at least 650,000 letters containing sensitive medical information are known to have been sent to India by a total of eight trusts, but many others are likely to be doing the same.
MPs warn that complicated medical terms may be mis-translated by the Indian workers leading to ‘tragic consequences’.
Outsourced: A series of London-area hospitals, including Great Ormond Street (pictured), has admitted using cheap secretarial agencies in India to type patient letters
At least one hospital – Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge – has already been forced to stop sending letters to India because the standard was so much worse.
Normally after seeing a patient a doctor dictates a referral letter to a consultant into a tape recorder, which is far quicker than typing it out. This is then given to the doctor’s medical secretary who types it up and sends it, saving the doctor time.
But recently hospitals have begun setting up schemes with private firms whereby the recordings are sent to India to be typed up and returned a few weeks later.
Figures obtained by Labour MP John Spellar under the Freedom of Information Act show that in 2011/12, West Middlesex University Hospital trust in west London, sent 234,000 letters to India.
Great Ormond Street Hospital trust in Central London sent 123,000 letters, while North Middlesex University Hospital trust in north London sent 137,000.
Last week the former health secretary Andrew Lansley (pictured) admitted that his own local hospital, Addenbrooke’s, had ended its contract because the quality of the letters coming back was poor
Other NHS trusts that said they routinely dispatch letters to India were: Kingston Hospital in south-west London; Epsom and St Helier University in south London and Surrey; the Whittington Hospital in north London; the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in north London.
Barts and the London in east London also admitted dispatching letters in the last year but said it had stopped the practice in July. It did not provide a reason.
Several of the NHS trusts insist there is no risk that patients’ confidentiality will be breached as their names and dates of birth are removed beforehand.
But last week the former health secretary Andrew Lansley admitted that his own local hospital, Addenbrooke’s, had ended its contract because the quality of the letters coming back was poor.
Mr Spellar, who raised the issue in the Commons last week, said: ‘There is a safety issue. There’s the potential for something to go tragically wrong.
‘If someone gives the wrong advice and this is not picked up then a patient could be misdiagnosed or seen less urgently than they should be.’
He added that it was ‘outrageous’ that NHS jobs were being outsourced abroad.
‘Unemployment in the UK is at unacceptable levels and the economy is suffering the worst double dip recession since the Second World War,’ he said.
‘Medical secretaries are being downgraded or laid off. This is work that could easily be based and carried out in the UK, maintaining jobs and keeping opportunities for our young people.’
Mr Spellar has not yet received replies from all NHS trusts in England but he suspects others are also sending letters abroad.
Recently it has also emerged that a number of primary care trusts – which oversee GP services – have also been sending patient letters abroad.
At least 46 PCTs have signed a deal with a private firm which involves having some of their administrative and secretarial work outsourced to India.
Several GPs have reported errors and in one case confidential information about patients was sent to the wrong PCT