It was revealed in January 2020 that the NHS was anticipating a £4.3 billion bill for ongoing medical negligence claims against them – a figure which sent ripples through the media, and caused considerable backlash for the squandering of public funds, either by claimants or by the NHS themselves. Between the divisive rhetoric, what does this cost actually mean – and what does it mean to claim medical negligence against the NHS?
Contributing Factors to Medical Negligence
There are many steps in the UK’s healthcare process which could result in your requiring the services of a professional medical negligence solicitor: you might have been overprescribed a drug by your GP; you might have been misdiagnosed – or worse, not diagnosed at all – and missed out on crucial specialist care as a result; you might have even been the victim of a mistake in the operating theatre. Medical negligence occurs when a practitioner fails to uphold their duty of care to you, and in so doing causes undeniable physical and or mental injury to you either directly or indirectly. But how can negligence be so prevalent as to warrant a £4.3 billion fund for ongoing legal fees?
A lot of the NHS’s issues with negligence claims can be traced back to systemic problems with the NHS’s infrastructure, particularly understaffing and underfunding. Stretched hospital units result in longer hours, less breaks and the increased likelihood of errors in care. Meanwhile, a recent report into the NHS’s overprescribing problem pinpoints gaps in administrative and information-sharing systems, resulting in inadvertent errors made with regard to conflicting medications. Simply put, the NHS is a complex system of processes in need of audit – and where these systems fail is where patients begin to fall through the cracks.
Footing the Bill
So what does this £4.3 billion amount mean for the NHS? Strictly speaking, that figure isn’t the whole truth – it describes the total legal costs of every medical negligence suit against the NHS, not all of which will be successful. Many medical negligence claimants do not have the requisite evidence to prove direct causation between the dereliction of a practitioner and the damages outlined – in the year 2018-19, only 44% of all claims against the NHS resulted in damages being paid. While the NHS may have less to pay out than reported, they have nonetheless increased a fund specifically designated for legal costs to £83.4 billion.
But where does this money come from? The answer is straightforward: the NHS. Taxpayer funds pay for these legal costs, a fact which is the root cause for concerns over NHS mismanagement of funds – after all, how can they afford £83.4 billion for legal cases and not afford the equipment necessary to avoid negligence claims altogether?
What Can Be Done?
There is no easy answer as to the solutions for this – but various reports, including the aforementioned report on overprescribing and this British Medical Journal paper on clinical negligence, point to the NHS’s structural issues, recommending investment in technology, training and staff to plug safety gaps and improve morale. There is no quick fix, but without serious rejuvenation the number of negligence cases could well increase yet further.