By Liam Bestwick, Litigation Executive in the Medical Negligence department
It has recently been reported that the NHS is expecting severe difficulties and pressures this coming winter. They are expecting pressures across all hospital activity, higher levels of staff vacancy over the Christmas period and a more tired and pressured workforce.
In addition to this, they are expecting the worst flu strain in seven years to have a significant impact, not only on an increase in the number of patients but an increase in the number of staff illness. The Guardian also reported that NHS Providers deputy chief executive, Saffron Cordery had stated “Performance is in a worse position going into this winter than last. Staff shortages are growing, putting additional strain on a workforce already overstretched during an exceptionally busy summer,”
From our experience, difficulties of this nature are expected to have a significant increase in the numbers of clinical negligence claims. If staff are overworked and tired, it is expected that their clinical judgement could be impaired and they could make life threatening mistakes. This could result in patients not getting the treatment that they require and being in a worse position as a result.
In addition to the higher risk of mistakes, there could also be delays in getting appropriate treatment. It is well documented that A&E departments across the country are under pressure and struggling to keep up with demand. However, there are many conditions (eg Testicular Torsions and Cauda Equina) that are medical emergencies and require treatment as soon as possible. If pressure on A&E departments become worse over the winter period, then this could lead to an increase in patients suffering irreparable damage and life changing consequences as a result of not being treated within an appropriate time frame.
Furthermore, it is anticipated that there will also be increased pressure on GP surgeries. This will come from an increased number of patients, both as a result of the flu strain and those diverted from A&E, and also an increased number of staff holidays. This could result in shorter appointments, a higher risk of mistakes, a failure to see the patient promptly and a failure to identify serious conditions such as Sepsis.
This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency by ensuring that there are enough staff in place to cope with demand and that policies are in place to triage patients appropriately. The government need to ensure that hospitals and GP practices up and down the country have sufficient funds to be able to provide the treatment that they require. If patients are not treated promptly, this could lead to an increase in costs further down the line as more expensive or prolonged treatment may be required.