A solicitor involved in a negligence claim against Pilgrim Hospital, Boston, following the death of a Spalding woman thinks compensation payments play a small part in the problem of soaring NHS costs.
Andrew Cragg, senior associate solicitor in medical law at Langleys Solicitors, Lincoln, made the claim after acting for widower Anthony Collins who brought a successful claim against Pilgrim after his wife, Christine, died from a second heart attack.
Mr Collins, a retired, self-employed builder, successfully claimed that his wife’s death could have been avoided if the hospital had carried out investigations revealing the need for heart bypass surgery.
This week, the Medical Defence Union (MDU) claimed that compensation payments for clinical negligence paid on behalf of United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust (ULHT) could have funded the salaries of more than 650 nurses or 450 junior doctors.
The MDU revealed that a total of £19.2 million was paid out on behalf of ULHT by the NHS Litigation Authority to compensate patients and pay legal fees in the year to March 2014, making the trust the fifth highest in England for compensation pay-outs in clinical negligence claims.
Mr Cragg said: “The vast majority of medical treatment being undertaken up and down the country would not give rise to any legal claims and compensation payments.
“In my experience, in those cases where compensation is paid, the key motivator for a person wanting to take legal action is for the health trusts and doctors involved to learn from the errors so that another individual or family is not similarly affected.
“Generally, where medical treatment is proven to be below a reasonable standard, it has resulted in the patient having to undergo more surgery, an extended time in hospital, more rehabilitation and the use of other services, all of which would have been avoided if the treatment was of a reasonable standard in the first place.”
Jack Tyrrell of Spalding, who suffers from a heart condition, contacted the Guardian after reading about the claim made following Mrs Collins’ death.
Mr Tyrrell said: “I spent 18 months under the care of Pilgrim Hospital before it was correctly diagnosed at Peterborough City Hospital that I had a heart blockage.
“The Government needs to act on this because hospitals are full of elderly people, putting a strain on services.”
The MDU also called on politicians to take action to prevent spiralling increases in multi-million pound compensation awards affecting NHS hospitals.
Dr Michael Devlin, the MDU’s head of professional standards and liaison, said: “It is important to make clear that the size of payments is no reflection on patient safety or on clinical standards.
“Compensation awards are so high because they reflect the money the NHS has to pay out to fund care for negligently damaged patients in the private sector. “The staggering amounts paid out on behalf of ULH NHS Trust and other English hospitals means there is less money for care of other patients at a time when the NHS is facing unprecedented demand and pressure on costs.
“In the year ending 31 March 2014, over £1 billion was paid out in total on behalf of all English hospitals.
“We are facing a nationwide problem with the cost of clinical negligence claims as claims inflation has been rising at a constant ten per cent for the last few years, with compensation awards doubling in value every seven years.
“Patients who have been negligently harmed need to be properly compensated so they know their health and social care needs will be met, but the NHS cannot continue to pay claims at this increasing rate.”
Compensation awards can run into many millions of pounds because defendant bodies like the NHS Litigation Authority and the MDU are prevented from paying out claims on the basis that care will be provided by the NHS and local authorities.
In one case, a child who suffered severe brain damage as a result of negligence was awarded compensation that could amount to £24 million over her entire lifetime.
Dr Devlin said: “We would like to see the problem of spiralling damages awards being taken seriously by Parliament and for there to be informed debate about how this money can be retained in the NHS for the benefit of all patients.”