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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Politics
Andrew Gregory Health editor

Medicines courier Sciensus was warned it was failing patients three years ago

Darryn Gibson of Sciensus on a CBI panel with Amanda Pritchard (left), the head of NHS England
Darryn Gibson of Sciensus on a CBI panel with Amanda Pritchard (left), the head of NHS England. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty

The boss of a private healthcare company exposed by the Guardian for putting seriously ill children and adults at risk was warned it was failing patients three years ago.

Darryn Gibson, the chief executive of Sciensus, Britain’s biggest medicines courier, was told in November 2020 that patients with bleeding disorders were being left dangerously exposed to internal bleeding with little or no treatment at home as a result of botched, delayed or missed deliveries.

Gibson received the written warning from Kate Burt, the chief executive of the Haemophilia Society, a leading health charity, after she had become outraged at how vulnerable patients were being let down.

Sciensus blamed IT issues and promised action. However, three years later, patients remain at “very serious” risk of harm because of “recurring” problems with the company, Burt said.

“We continue to receive complaints about missing, incomplete or inaccurate deliveries and are very concerned to see the same issues recurring, indicating that far more needs to be done to improve Sciensus’s ordering and delivery systems,” she said.

Burt spoke out after a Guardian investigation revealed serious and significant concerns raised by patients, clinicians and health groups about Sciensus. Sick children and adults are suffering avoidable harm and becoming more unwell as a result of failings by the company, we found.

“The impact of this inefficient and erratic service is very serious,” said Burt. “Missing or delaying a treatment puts people with haemophilia at greater risk of painful bleeds, joint damage and, potentially, emergency trips to hospital.

“Unreliable deliveries not only cause stress and anxiety for people in need of their treatment but also result in unacceptable waste at huge cost to the NHS.”

Sciensus, which is based in Burton upon Trent, is paid millions of pounds each year by the NHS to transport vital drugs and medical items to about 200,000 people with conditions including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia and HIV. Its services are also privately funded.

Gibson, who has previously held senior roles at Serco, the government contractor, was appointed chief executive in 2018.

Callout

After Burt wrote to Gibson in November 2020 to “strongly complain” about the “unreliable service” provided by Sciensus, she was told “the problems were largely due to a new IT system”, she recalled.

Burt said the company agreed to launch a patient and parent forum in which a panel of people with bleeding disorders met quarterly with a company representative. “However, after some productive meetings, they lost momentum,” she said.

The company, then known as Healthcare at Home, was placed into special measures after an inspection by the Care Quality Commission, the care regulator, in the same year as Burt’s complaint. According to the CQC, IT failings meant almost 10,000 medicine deliveries were delayed or missed.

Just months later, the company was reinspected by the CQC, rated as “good” overall and removed from special measures. At the same time it also rebranded to the name Sciensus.

“Using valuable insights Sciensus will be helping patients take more control of their health and their personal goals,” the company said in a statement about the rebranding in July 2021.

“It will be easier to get support from specialist nurses, therapists and clinicians, easier to manage visits and deliveries, and easier to find helpful, practical information any time patients choose.”

However, the Guardian has exposed how, despite the promises, the positive CQC report and the company rebrand, significant and serious problems have persisted.

Patients, families and NHS staff have made multiple formal complaints to the CQC since its last inspection, detailing how they are repeatedly let down by the unreliable service, with warnings that some patients are suffering avoidable harm as a result.

In response, the CQC has told the Guardian it is reviewing concerns raised about the company. After the Guardian investigation, more than 100 patients have come forward to share concerns about the company.

Burt said she believes the problems causing recurring worries for patients are widespread. “We are in regular contact with Sciensus to resolve our members’ continuing problems but feel that the issues the company faces are systemic.”

A Sciensus spokesperson said: “We agree with Kate that the patient and parent forum has been a positive avenue for discussions. We are keen to continue that process and build on the progress we’ve made so far.

“We speak to Kate on a regular basis, as we both focus on delivering the best service for patients. If any patients have concerns, we would urge them to contact us – we have a priority helpline and also offer same-day emergency dispensing and delivery.”

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