Has Clinical Negligence Turned A Corner In 2013?

Clinical negligence has become a hot topic in healthcare and politics over the past few years, with payouts reaching their highest in history and new legislation threatening to drastically change the legal aid system for victims of clinical negligence. Let’s take a closer look at the latest stats and case studies from across the UK to examine the challenges currently facing our healthcare system—and how they may be improved in the future.

Clinical Negligence: Just the Facts
According to the latest clinical negligence report published by Penningtons in 2012, the number of clinical negligence cases has increased drastically in the past five years, from 5,697 claims in 2005/2006 to 8,655 claims in 2010/2011. Three areas are responsible for generating the highest number of claims in 2010/2011: surgery (25,867 claims), obstetrics and gynecology (13,095 claims), and medicine (12,045 claims), with obstetrics and gynecology attracting the highest value claims. This is because they must cover damages the victim will suffer over his/her entire lifetime. What do these claims cost the NHSLA annually? According to the Penningtons report, the NHSLA paid out a whopping £729.1 million in damages to the victims of these clinical negligence cases in 2010/2011 alone.

A Case Study
While all clinical errors are tragic to some degree, some of the most horrifying stories involve children who suffered from the consequences of negligence during their mother’s pregnancy, the birthing process, or within their first few weeks of life. One of these unfortunate cases is Perry Evans, a 10-year-old boy who suffered from a ruptured gut at birth. Negligence on the part of Southampton General Hospital staff led him to suffer serious brain damages, including cerebral palsy and learning disabilities. The poor boy is also registered blind and must be fed by a tube, conditions that he is likely to endure for the rest of his young life. Last October, Evans and his family finally got some good news when a High Court judge awarded them a £5.8 million payout, though the loss of quality of life this young boy will endure of course has no price tag.

A Call For Improvement
The rise in medical negligence claims over the past five years highlights a major issue in the UK: the need to identify major healthcare issues and improve upon the current system. For one, we need to make sure discredited doctors do not carry on practising, but as The Times recent report revealed, only 40 doctors of the 102 the GMC wanted to remove from practise in 2011 were actually stuck off. Many are also worried that the bar is set to low for doctors, and that without the capability to appeal to independent fitness to practise panels, many of the GMC’s decisions are being overruled. The new LASPO bill—which goes into effect on April 1, 2013—has also caused a big stir in the media and public eye. Under the new bill, cases like little Perry Evans’ will be eligible for legal aid, but many others will not be: the LASPO bill limits legal aid eligibility to victims who suffered severe neurological damage from a clinical error during their mother’s pregnancy, the birthing process, or in the first eight weeks of their life. Those wishing to make claims for improper diagnoses, surgical complications, and harmful medicines will have to take on “no win no fee agreements” or pay out of pocket for legal aid—something which will almost certainly be a major setback to the gains made in clinical negligence restitution over the years.

Daniel Meed. A medical journalist with a taste for current issues concerning the publiv health system