Special report: Unity Health missed a student’s potential cancer warning signs

The Tab’s investigation has revealed one student’s account of their traumatic experience using the practice


During the past year, there have been numerous issues with campus GP Unity Health.

Their phone lines weren't working, which left some students unable to book appointments, and the situation eventually became so severe the practice was placed into special measures.

This has meant incoming freshers are currently unable to register with the on-campus GP and are being redirected to a practice in town. However, a re-inspection is due to take place on September 18th that could see the decision reversed and Unity Health taken out of special measures.

In response, The Tab launched an investigation into students' experiences of Unity Health. We've spoken to nearly 50 students who told us of their experiences of the practice. Many experiences involved accounts, that whilst shocking, were anecdotal. Legally, this means we are unable to publish the majority of them.

We've decided to focus on one student's experience, which we are able to share. It's also one of the most shocking we've heard.

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Unity Health's Heslington East surgery

A second year student called Nora, not her real name, told us of her experience with Unity Health, which saw the practice miss a potential cancer scare.

Nora's problems centred around her inability to get an appointment and Unity Health trusting students to describe their symptoms correctly using an online form.

She told The Tab: "It was about seven or eight weeks into term one when I got symptoms of tonsillitis/head cold. There were white spots on my tonsils and I had a ridiculously sore throat. I was just feeling generally bunged up but far worse than the classic 'freshers' flu'."

Filling out the Unity Health online form led her to a two-minute phone call with a member of staff saying she didn’t need an appointment. She also wasn't asked any further questions than what was asked by the very limited report.

Please take The Tab's Unity Health survey, it will only take a minute

Nora continued: "If they had questioned further they may have found that I had been suffering from sinusitis (the swelling of the sinuses) for the past seven weeks (which makes it chronic) and had contributed to these enhanced ENT (ear nose and throat) symptoms. Because of my difficulty to get an appointment I assumed that I was fine even though my gut instinct was originally to contact a GP."

When Nora returned home for the Christmas break, she immediately visited her home GP and managed to get an appointment there. They quickly diagnosed severe sinusitis and gave her two blood tests as well as putting her on antibiotics.

She then describes the moment she found out she may have had serious health concerns: "They called me in to discuss these results and said that I needed to go urgently for scans of my thyroid, lymph node and spleen because of what they had found."

The spleen scan was to rule out a ruptured spleen and glandular fever, but the lymph node and thyroid ultrasounds were because they found atypical lymphocytes in Nora's blood. This is a sign of a ridiculously high level of infection (when you have an infection some of the white blood cells are deformed because they are being made in such a hurry).

"They [my GP at home] said not to worry or look up what this could mean (which naturally I did anyway) and was so scared to find out that these were a blood characteristic common to septicaemia, leukaemia, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma etc.

"Naturally they were scanning my glands for signs of cancer because the infection seemed so severe. Luckily it was just because I had such chronic sinusitis that it has displayed similar characteristics to severe diseases but it just proves that the infection was left to last and fester/increase from an initial lack of treatment and concern from Unity Health."

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In response to Nora's allegations, a spokesperson for Unity Health told The Tab: "It’s not appropriate to comment publicly on an individual patient’s care but, as these concerns haven’t previously been raised with us, we are contacting the patient to encourage her to complain formally so we can investigate and provide her with some answers."

Nora then showed us an email her mum had sent to Unity Health on May 3rd earlier this year, complaining about her daughter's experience of using the GP clinic. She is yet to receive a reply to this email. Nora said: "I am not surprised by this lack of response as it mirrors the 252 complaints that were not replied to by Unity Health, highlighted in the Care Quality Commission’s report."

Unity Health went on to say: "On a more general note, we have acknowledged past problems with our online triage service and have now replaced it with an improved telephone service.

"A range of other improvements have been made in response to points raised in the recent Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspection, including additional GP and nurse practitioner recruitment, enhanced staff training and the creation of a Patient Participation Group which includes representation from the university student body.

"Recent feedback from review sites such as NHS Choices indicates that these improvements are being welcomed by our patients and we’re confident they will be recognised by the CQC when they return for a re-inspection later this month."

Steph Hayle, YUSU's Community and Wellbeing Officer, and Paula Tunbridge, the Director of Campus Life and Wellbeing, were both present at this week's York Council scrutiny meeting to question Unity Health on their plans regarding their CQC re-inspection.

The Tab York still wants to hear your experiences of Unity Health, particularly if you think the practice has recently improved the quality of care it is providing, or if you feel much remains unchanged.