Earlier this month (4 Jan), it was reported that more than 200 patients were wrongly classified as having a more aggressive form of breast cancer than their actual condition due to a lab error at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH).
The patients were wrongly classified as having HER2-positive breast cancer, which tend to be more aggressive than other types of breast cancer. Statistically, about 15 to 20 per cent of breast cancer patients would be HER2-positive. As a result, the wrongly diagnosed breast cancer patients who actually were not HER2-positive, were administered with a drug called Herceptin.
Herceptin has side effects. Common side effects include diarrhea, chills and fatigue. What is more serious is that about 3 to 4 per cent of patients taking Herceptin may also experience heart problems. Herceptin can damage the heart and its ability to pump blood effectively, sometimes resulting in mild heart failure, including shortness of breath and chest pain.
Senior Minister of State for Health Koh Poh Koon has said that KTPH would review the bills of the affected patients. He added that the costs incurred by patients due to unnecessary treatment will be fully refunded.
Wrongly diagnosed patients forgive KTPH
In a media interview published on Straits Times (ST) yesterday (17 Jan), some of the patients affected by the KTPH’s lab error were more forgiving.
When accounts clerk Stella Seah, 46, was told last month (Dec) that she may have been wrongly diagnosed with a more aggressive form HER2-positive breast cancer, she had already received 17 rounds of Herceptin.
“I broke down in tears as I had been suffering unnecessary pain from the medication,” she said. She added that she had experienced hot flashes, insomnia, headaches, bone and chest pain, and giddiness during her treatment.
Although she considered pursuing legal action against KTPH, she said she has decided to move on. “Initially, I was very upset at having to go through unnecessary treatment but, after all, we cannot go back. Life has to move on.”
Another patient, who works in customer service but did not want to give her name, told ST that she was one of the “lucky ones” who were not severely affected by the over-treatment with Herceptin.
She took Herceptin for only three months, between Sep and Nov last year until the lab error was discovered. KTPH contacted her early last month about the wrong diagnosis. That is to say, she only had the non-aggressive form of breast cancer.
She said KTPH reassured her the treatments would have been largely the same even if she had tested negative for HER2, save for the Herceptin prescription.
She told ST, “The (compensation) package they offered also covers my transport costs and the extra tests I had to go through, so I think it is sufficient. This was an unfortunate event and they are doing their best to cover every aspect.”
However, she said it was not yet clear if there might be any long-term effects that will emerge a few years later. “I hope the hospital will still provide care if that were to happen to some of us,” she said.
KTPH says they will pay for transport costs incurred by patients
Meanwhile, KTPH told ST that it will give affected patients a full refund for all costs associated with the unnecessary treatments. It will offer additional compensation for “related inconveniences, such as transport costs”.
A KTPH spokesman said, “Our hospital stands ready to offer further physical, psychological or financial support where needed.”
Nevertheless, KTPH must have been happy to note that some of the affected patients like Ms Seah and the customer service girl are quite understanding and sympathetic to KTPH’s plight.