Sciensus: Inside the firm 'putting strain on NHS' by failing to deliver vital drugs

By Wedaeli Chibelushi, Multimedia Producer

Former employees of an NHS-contracted company have said they routinely faced abuse from patients frustrated by poor service and widespread delays in delivering vital medication.

Homecare medicines service Sciensus says it "works with every NHS Trust in the country" to deliver specialised medications to those with chronic illnesses. Sciensus' patients include those with HIV, cancer and haemophilia.

ITV News previously reported claims that some Sciensus patients had been rushed to hospital and left bedridden because of delivery delays. Dozens of patients have since come forward with other complaints, including nurses failing to attend appointments and telephone wait times of 40 minutes.

Some 83% of the hundreds who reviewed Sciensus on the NHS website rated the company one star out of five.

In an effort to understand what appears to be going wrong at Sciensus, ITV News heard from three former employees, all of whom worked for the company between 2019 and 2023.

'A patient told me they wanted to die'

Bola*, a former pharmacist, said they went on sick leave after repeatedly receiving abuse from frustrated patients.

Customer service staff would tell these patients to expect pharmaceutical advice within 24 to 48 hours, but an excessive workload meant pharmacists could often only get in touch after "one or two weeks".

Bola said that when they would eventually respond to patients, "the patients were quite angry, upset, and abusive".

Although they recognise many patients were in a desperate situation, Bola said: "It's not your personal fault they're in that situation - it's the fault of the whole system. I didn't want to be in that situation and I dreaded it. It got to a point where I didn't want to open my laptop."

In one instance, a patient felt "so disappointed with the service and felt so helpless they said they wanted to die", Bola said.

'I can't blame patients for screaming at me'

A former Sciensus delivery driver said they would receive abuse from patients who were finally receiving their medication after going without it for days, or in some cases weeks.

"You'd have them screaming at you," Sam* said. "I can't hold that against them because I'd be just as bad if it was me."

Sam also addressed a complaint raised by several patients to ITV News - that they would wait around all day for a scheduled delivery, only to receive an text at 8pm saying their medication would not be arriving.

One patient told ITV News: "I was told that the driver was unable to deliver, due to no answer. When we inspected the footage on the ring doorbell it showed that no delivery driver had been to the address."

Sam said this would happen regularly as drivers would be booked for an unrealistic number of deliveries, despite being capped to 11 hour-shifts, in accordance with the law.

“You tell [managers] when you get your run sheet, that you're not gonna make all the drops... they still send you out to make those drops,” Sam said.

Many Sciensus patients inject themselves with medications after being trained by a nurse from the company. Credit: Pexels

'10,000 deliveries were missed after the company launched new IT systems without testing them'

Reports of widespread delays at Sciensus are not new.

In 2014, the General Pharmaceutical Council, which regulates the pharmaceutical sector, found numerous patients had gone without drugs because of internal issues at Sciensus, then known as Healthcare at Home.

In 2021, a second regulator, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), put Healthcare at Home into special measures after the introduction of new IT systems led to almost 10,000 missed deliveries. Some patients were hospitalised as a result.

Alex*, who used to work in Sciensus' pharmacy team, told ITV News how the new systems, described as "unsuitable" by the CQC, had been launched without Sciensus testing them.

Alex said that on the day the systems failed, pharmacy staff worked until the early hours of the morning, scrambling to manually process orders.

"I felt embarrassed. I started working there because I wanted to help patients and then it felt like we were just failing them," the ex-employee said.

When putting Healthcare at Home into special measures, the CQC reported that the new systems "had not been thoroughly risk assessed and tested and resulted in avoidable harm to some patients".

Alex said that separate from the IT failure, pharmacy staff would routinely work seven days a week because Sciensus would take on too many NHS contracts without hiring enough staff to process prescriptions.

"We knew if we didn't do the overtime patients wouldn't be able to get their meds," Alex, who eventually resigned from Sciensus as a result of stress, said.

The former employee believes the company "doesn't have the patients' best interests at heart... it is more quantity over quality".

Some of the NHS trusts that awarded Sciensus contracts are beginning to feel the same way, it appears.

Within the past three weeks, ITV News has seen correspondence in which patients have been informed their medicines will by no longer be delivered by Sciensus.

A spokesperson for Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust confirmed: “To offer an improved service, we have started moving some patients from Sciensus to an alternative homecare medicines provider.”

Elsewhere, University Hospitals Birmingham said 205 of its patients with multiple sclerosis have been switched from Sciensus.

Previously, Dr Benjamin Ellis, a consultant rheumatologist and advisor to charity Versus Arthritis, told ITV News that Sciensus' delays were putting "a strain on the NHS", as medics end up chasing the company to secure deliveries for their patients.

Not only is the NHS taking action, parliament is too. On Wednesday, the House of Lords' Public Services Committee began an inquiry into homecare medicines services like Sciensus.

Ahead of the first hearing, committee chair Baroness Morris of Yardley, acknowledged "reports of missed deliveries, delays, and potentially significant health impacts for patients".

A spokesperson for Sciensus, which says it serves 200,000 patients across the UK and Europe, said: “We are very sorry if any member of staff has faced unacceptable behaviour. Our colleagues are always encouraged to report any issues, which are investigated without exception.

"The CQC’s report published in October 2021, where we achieved a good rating, demonstrates our improvements. The results of our continuing efforts are also reflected in the April 2023 patient satisfaction survey which showed 93% of patients are at least satisfied with our pharmacy delivery services.

"We all know how important it is for patients to get their medicines on time and that’s why our team, including nurses, pharmacists, and drivers, work hard to give the best service to patients all over the country.”

* all names have been changed at the request of the former employees

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