A patient who moved house missed out on receiving an invitation to get bowel cancer screening - and later died of bowel cancer.
Minister of Health Dr David Clark has ordered an independent review of the National Bowel Screening Programme due to issues with people not receiving their invites after changing address.
Last year, the Ministry of Health wrote to about 2,500 people who had not received screening invitations due to the issue.
"Three people may have been impacted by the delay and have gone on to develop bowel cancer. One of those people has sadly died," according to a statement from Clark's office.
Bowel cancer is the second most lethal cancer in New Zealand, killing more than 1200 people each year. Screening detects cancers early on, increasing the chance that treatment will work.
The free screening programme is being rolled out in stages around the country, with three DHBs currently on board. It is due to be in place nationwide by mid-2021.
But during the pilot programme, which ran from 2011 to the end of 2017, it was discovered that address changes were not properly being updated, and some people weren't getting their invitations in the mail.
"I want to be assured that everything possible is done to avoid these sort of issues happening again," Clark said.
Clinical advice from the Ministry of Health said it was not possible to determine if any of the three people with cancer would have had different outcomes if they had received their invitations. However their cancers might have been detected earlier if they had chosen to be screened.
Since the issue was discovered addresses have been manually updated in the National Bowel Screening Register by cross-referencing with the National Health Index. Work is ongoing looking at address records to ensure all errors are being identified, the statement said.
"The Ministry of Health has taken full responsibility for this matter. As Minister of Health I also apologise unreservedly," Clark said.
He said the independent review would look at a broad range of factors, including information technology, DHB capacity, operational management and clinical matters.
The roll-out of the National Bowel Screening Programme will continue during the review, which should be completed by June.
Rebekah Heal, chief executive of Bowel Cancer NZ, said the address bungle was "deeply concerning". The organisation's condolences were with those affected and their families, she said.
It was clear the review was an important step, although she hoped it would not slow the full rollout of the programme. Heal has previously criticised the slow pace of the screening programme's rollout, after Clark announced in January there could be delays of up to a year due to DHBs' budget constraints.
"We're well behind the rest of the world and this is a rising disease in New Zealand," Heal said. "These delays can cost people their health - and their lives."
Anyone eligible whose DHB was already in the programme but had not received an invite should contact their DHB directly to ensure they would get screened, she said.
WHAT IS THE BOWEL CANCER SCREENING PROGRAMME?
Once fully implemented, bowel cancer screening will be free to all eligible New Zealanders aged 60-74 years. About 700,000 Kiwis will be invited for screening every two years.
It is expected to pick up between 500-700 cancers each year.
The programme is being rolled out progressively. Waitemata, Hutt Valley and Wairarapa DHBs now offer free screening.
Southern and Counties Manukau DHBs will be underway by the end of June, followed by Nelson Marlborough, Lakes and Hawkes Bay in November.
The remaining DHBs will progressively join the programme, which is expected to be fully in place by the end of the 2020/21 financial year.