So what sort of costs do medical negligence claims generate at the moment, and how can public funds be better managed?
The National Patient Safety Agency, an arm of the Department of Health, reported 612,414 patient safety incidents in England between 1st October 2011 and 31st March 2012. To put this into context, 32% of those reported resulted in harm ranging from low to severe, including death. These figures alone clearly highlight the need for medical negligence litigation.
While legitimate claims of medical negligence should be pursued, the issue currently lies around the culture of cover-ups within the NHS that is stalling legal proceedings. The time it takes for the service to conduct its own investigations into a claim against an institution or individual is lengthened by evidenced failure from staff and management to report incidents. This is also made worse by a general reluctance to admit fault, which is hindering legal processes further.
The result of this is that fewer claims are being resolved at an early stage or in a timely and efficient manner. In this way, taxpayer funding is not being spent as effectively as it could be. This issue of efficiency would be significantly helped by greater transparency and openness from the NHS when things do go wrong. This would save time-consuming investigations of fact, therefore reducing the ultimate legal bill faced by the taxpayer.
Calls for a Duty of Candour go some way to addressing this as, if policed correctly, this will implicate hospitals in the reporting process. If a culture of transparency is encouraged, and standards of care improved, the time taken to assess each claim should be reduced, along with the number of claims filed.
Plans to install a chief inspector of hospitals and introduce a ratings scheme for hospitals will assist, but solicitors are also integral to increasing accountability. Freeing up public funding for other areas of health like care instead of funnelling these to litigation is in the public interest.