Some 350 test samples lost in NI hospitals in last five years

Patient samples include blood and bodily waste, some accidentally put in post

Hundreds of hospital samples taken from patients to test for infection, disease and cancer have been lost in hospitals throughout Northern Ireland over the last five years.

The samples were mostly blood specimens but also included bodily waste, biopsies and other human tissue. In some cases patients will have had to undergo invasive procedures for a second time, after samples went missing while being transported between laboratories.

Over the last five years, 365 specimens have gone missing from hospital buildings or during transportation.

The information was obtained through a series of Freedom of Information requests by Belfast-based news and analysis website, The Detail.


In Belfast hospitals alone, 348 samples were recorded by the Belfast Health Trust as “missing”. Over half were never found again.

Responding to the figures a spokesperson for the Belfast Health Trust said: “We are very sorry if this has been a cause of concern or stress to any of the patients affected.”

The trust said it handles millions of samples every year and only a small percentage could not be traced.

‘Never acceptable’

But the chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) in Northern Ireland, Dr John Woods, said cases of specimens going missing were "never acceptable", regardless of the numbers involved.

“It is worrying that any medical specimen would go missing. These are often crucial in making a diagnosis and guiding treatment. It is especially concerning when specimens are lost which have been obtained by an invasive procedure which then has to be repeated.

“The number of specimens going missing may be small given the numbers processed but this is never acceptable.”

Patient samples taken in hospitals are usually transferred using internal NHS systems.

However, a number of lost samples were accidentally sent out in the post.

Internal hospital investigations, including some Serious Adverse Incident (SAI) inquiries, were triggered on a number of occasions, including when:

- Two samples were put into a brown envelope and inadvertently sent out in the post from the South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen;

- Two samples from Altnagelvin Hospital were accidentally posted to Stormont Parliament Buildings;

- The Belfast Trust did not return what was referred to as a specimen to Altnagelvin hospital. It was temporarily recorded as lost. When it was found the specimen was cremated;

- Samples from a deceased person, biopsies from oral surgery and tissue remains were lost from the Southern Trust.

In a number of responses the remaining health trusts apologised to any patients affected, but said the missing samples only accounted for a small fraction of their workload and action had been taken to address any problems identified.