'Missed Opportunities’ To Send Grandmother For Urgent Assessment Under NHS Two-Week Cancer Referral Programme
The family of a retried businesswoman who died following a two-year delay in diagnosing her lung cancer are campaigning to raise awareness of signs of the disease and to urge patients to ask more questions of their doctors.
Irene Ellingham’s relatives have spoken out after a hospital trust report seen by the family’s legal team at Irwin Mitchell found there were “missed opportunities” to diagnose and treat her disease.
After being diagnosed with pneumonia and possible Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease on 10 January 2018, the mum-of-two and grandmother-of-three underwent two CT scans while a patient of the Parkside Suite, a private ward based at Wexham Park Hospital on 3 January and 20 February, 2018. The results were ‘abnormal,’ the investigation found.
Mum not referred to lung cancer specialist under urgent two-week referral
Instead of being sent to a lung cancer specialist under the NHS’ urgent two-week cancer referral, a private radiologist incorrectly advised that Irene, of Maidenhead, undergo a follow up chest X-ray in four to six months’ time. The follow up chest X-ray was never booked.
Irene, who set up Bennett Transport road haulage company in the 1980s and who volunteered at Maidenhead Synagogue, was told that she had COPD. She attended a third meeting with a different private doctor on 28 February, 2018. They noted the previous recommendations and took no further action. The follow up chest X-ray was never booked, the report said.
Irene, who was married to Pete, 69, was diagnosed with cancer which had spread to her liver and bones in May 2020. She died aged 74, days later at home.
Family asks lawyers for help after Irene's lung cancer diagnosis and death
Following her death Irene’s family, including daughters Lisa, 47, and Sharon 45, instructed specialist medical negligence lawyers at Irwin Mitchell to help secure answers from Frimley Health NHS Foundation Trust.
The Parkside Suite is a private ward based at Wexham Park and run by Frimley Health NHS Foundation Trust. Income from private patients is reinvested directly back into the NHS care Frimley Health NHS Foundation Trust provides.
'Missed opportunities' during two-year delay in diagnosing mum's lung cancer
A Serious Incident report by the trust concluded the ‘root cause’ of Irene’s death was a delay in diagnosing her lung cancer following the results of her second CT scan in February 2018.
After the results of her second scan “there should have been a high degree of suspicion” that Irene had lung cancer which warranted her being referred to a specialist under the national NHS two-week referral. The radiologist carrying out the scan didn’t specialise in imaging of chests, the investigation found.
Not referring Irene to a lung cancer specialist during her consultations on 20 and 28 February were “missed opportunities” to diagnose her condition.
If different care had been provided it might have been possible to diagnose Irene’s condition in 2018, the Trust has told the family.
The report recommended the referral processes for private patients at the hospital are aligned with the steps taken for NHS services. The medics involved in Irene’s care are to also receive feedback.
Legal expert calls for lessons to be learned over cancer diagnosis delay
Millie Bolsover, the legal expert at Irwin Mitchell representing the family, said: “Irene’s sudden death has had a profound effect on her family and her many friends.
“Sadly through our work we see the devastating consequences families can be left to face through delays in diagnosing cancer.
“The hospital trust’s review has identified worrying areas in the private healthcare Irene faced. We hope that health professionals learn lessons from the issues that the trust has identified and are reminded of the need of working closely with the NHS to improve patient care.
“We will continue to support Irene’s family in raising awareness of the importance of early detection and treatment of cancer.”
Family campaign to raise awareness of symptoms of lung cancer
Lisa added: “Mum was an independent woman who was ahead of her time. She established her own haulage company in the 1980s and after retiring she loved to spend time with her family and friends, whilst also volunteering regularly.
“She adored her grandchildren and was never happier than when spending time with them.
“Mum was a force of nature who was still really active until the start of 2018 when she started having problems with her cough. Following that she was never quite the same again.
“She would be short of breath and struggled to do a lot of things she once took for granted. She trusted wholeheartedly what the doctors were saying and had no reason to believe otherwise.
“Even though she was becoming more poorly it was a huge shock when we were finally told she had cancer. For her to die within a few days of her diagnosis has made everything even harder to try and come to terms with.
“It’s difficult not to feel Mum was badly let down when she needed help the most. We know that nothing can bring her back, we just hope that by speaking out others are aware of the signs of cancer, and if they feel they need to question what they are told by doctors.
“We wouldn’t wish the anguish and pain our family are going through on anyone.”
Background - Irene's story
After developing a cough in late 2017, Irene sought medical advice and was given antibiotics.
On 2 January, 2018, with her condition not improving, Irene was referred by a GP for immediate admission to Wexham Park Hospital. After arriving at Wexham Park’s A&E department Irene asked to be looked after privately under the care of the Parkside Suite.
A doctor specialising in acute and general medicine, rather than respiratory illness, diagnosed Irene with COPD and treated her for a lung infection. She was discharged on 10 January following the ‘abnormal’ CT scan.
A follow up scan while Irene was under private care was performed on 20 February, 2018. The result was also ‘abnormal’. The radiologist carrying out the scan didn’t specialise in imaging of chests, the investigation found.
Irene attended another appointment on 28 February with a private consultant who noted the findings of the previous scan and said a follow up X-ray would be arranged.
No further appointment was made with Irene.
Irene attended 27 sessions of a rehabilitation class between May 2018 and June 2019 to try and improve her lung function, the report said.
She attended Wexham Park Hospital on 29 April, 2020, complaining of increased shortness of breath and a five week cough. Irene had started antibiotics five days previously which hadn’t improved her condition.
Irene was readmitted via ambulance on 2 May. Following tests she was diagnosed with cancer. Irene was sent home on 8 May while doctors formulated a care plan. She died on 11 May, 2020.