There is an old Chinese curse; ‘May you live in interesting times’. Times are certainly ‘interesting’ for patients who are injured as a result of medical accidents.
“Earlier this year Robert Francis QC finalised his report into the appalling events which took place within Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust and which – amongst other calamities – involved the deaths of a number of patients.
“On August 7, the Government announced that it would inject a further £500m into the NHS to offset some of the pressures imposed on overstretched Accident and Emergency Units throughout the country. This is viewed by NHS chiefs as only a stop gap arrangement.
“So what is the underlying problem? Is it a shortage of investment?”
“The NHS remains, by some considerable margin, the largest single employer in the United Kingdom. Its employs far greater numbers than all three branches of the Armed Forces put together. In January 2013, the Kings Fund reported that in the last 50 years, spending on the NHS in the UK has increased from 3.4% to 8.2% of gross domestic product for the entire country. If the next fifty years follows the same trajectory, expenditure on health and social care will eventually reach one-fifth of the total GDP for the country. By 2061 it is estimated that this total could reach 16.6% of GDP. The reasons are many and various but a growing – and rapidly aging – population is one important factor.
“How then in this powerful, sophisticated and hugely resourced organisation can awful events like those at Mid Staffs, take place. Some – at least – of the answers are to be found in the Francis report.
“One of its many recommendations was that the NHS must create a culture which delivers high-quality care and is responsive to patients’ needs. One way in which that could be achieved will be to allow, indeed encourage, NHS staff to draw attention to problems, rather than being prevented from doing so. There should be a ban on “gagging orders”. In the last few days “NHS England” announced that it is increasing transparency within the NHS and improving services for patients.
“The problem is that that we have heard it all before. Let us hope that this time it really happens.”
“There is another problem. On April 1, 2013, the Government introduced sweeping changes to the ways in which most civil litigation is funded. One of the most important and controversial changes was the scrapping of Legal aid in clinical negligence cases. Now it is only available to children injured at birth. Changes were also made to other methods of funding including, “no win, no fee” agreements.
“Before anyone cries out about “the compensation culture”, let’s not forget that medical accidents can make a patient’s condition and outlook very much worse than they would otherwise be. They may not be able to work or earn a living and yet the bills keep rolling in and their jobs and homes may be at risk.
“The Government’s stated aim was to reduce the cost of litigation. The real aim is to make it as difficult as possible for patients injured by medical accidents to claim the compensation they and their families need. The fewer the number of claims, the greater the saving to the Government. What price transparency in the NHS?
“Although funding changes have made life more difficult for injured patients, happily lawyers who specialise in clinical negligence work can still arrange suitable ways of funding claims. If someone finds that they have to make a medical negligence claim, the important thing is to make sure that the solicitor you instruct is a member of the Law Society’s Clinical Negligence Panel or the AVMA Clinical Negligence Panel. Ask before you give instructions.”
Richard Blair is a partner with WBW Solicitors and a Member of the Law Society’s Clinical Negligence Panel.