In April 2013, a report in the Telegraph revealed that the cost of medical negligence claims affecting the NHS had risen to almost £16 billion. Medical negligence is clearly a problem in the UK, where the standard of treatment ought to be at least as high as it is in other developed nations. But what exactly is medical negligence?
Duty of Care
Some people believe that the NHS should not be required to pay any money to patients who have received a substandard level of treatment. Accidents do happen and not every risk can be avoided. But negligence involves a breach of a legal duty that exists to protect ordinary members of the public from harm that is both foreseeable and avoidable. And it is not just the NHS that is responsible for ensuring the health and safety of patients.
All medical practitioners in the UK have a legal duty of care to protect their patients from avoidable illness or injury. Medical negligence occurs when that duty is breached. Though more complex than other areas of tort law, medical negligence cases rely on many of the same legal tests and principles as ordinary personal injury claims. Harm must be reasonably foreseeable. The breach must cause the harm. In other words, the act or omission ought not to have occurred at all.
Types of Medical Negligence
Medical negligence takes many forms. Some claims arise as a result of incidents that occur before patients are seen by doctors; for example, unreasonably long waiting times in A&E departments that result in death, injury or illness can be categorised as a type of clinical negligence, as can a misdiagnosis by a GP or inadequate treatment by nurses or paramedics. Most claims, however, involve surgical mistakes.
Surgeons encounter risk on a daily basis. No operation can ever be considered risk-free, but certain standards of treatment and hygiene are expected. Claims are often brought against hospitals whose surgeons have made serious errors during operations. In extreme cases, doctors have been known to remove the wrong organs, cause damage to healthy parts of the body or perform unnecessary amputations.
Other kinds of medical negligence might be less dramatic, but they can be every bit as damaging, if not more so. An individual who has suffered a brain injury following medical negligence might require round-the-clock care and medication for the remainder of his life, for example. In some cases, poor hygiene (e.g., inadequate sterilisation of surgical equipment) can cause life-altering complications for patients who fall victim to illness as a result.
The victims of medical negligence, or their families or legal representatives, can claim compensation for the injury or illness that was caused by the breach of the duty of care. Damages may include expenses for loss of earnings, medication, professional care, special equipment such as wheelchairs, beds, harnesses and modifications to cars and vehicles.
Gregory Walpole, a retired personal injury solicitor, writes about the law for a number of online publications. Having witnessed what a brain injury following medical negligence can do to an individual, Gregory believes the legal system of England and Wales has an obligation to ensure that negligence victims are adequately compensated.