NHS, fixed fees and patient safety
In 2015, Jeremy Hunt said that there were probably about 1,000 “avoidable” deaths in the NHS every month. So there are about 12,000 deaths every year and this figure does not begin to include serious injuries to patients that fall short of being fatal!
There is a clear public interest in maintaining high standards of care in the NHS and accountability for mistakes. There are currently various ways to deal with untoward incidents that are far from perfect. However, even this flawed system looks to be under threat from current proposals by the government to introduce fixed fees for all claims worth up to £250,000.
Ways of investigating injuries and deaths in the NHS include:
- Criminal prosecution of clinicians perceived to have failed in their duties to the patient.
My view, for what it’s worth, is that this approach inhibits openness and produces a culture of covering up mistakes. It is generally unhelpful and I think it should be avoided in the absence ofevidence suggesting malicious intent
- Adopt the approach used in the airline industry. This means that openness and discussion are mandated and the aim is to put measures in place to minimise the chances of the mistake happening again
In my view this is the most constructive approach and would be the best system to strive for within the NHS.
- Full investigation via the current civil court system. This is a critically important safeguard underpinning the interests of patients. It allows investigation into incidents to be undertaken by independent judges. Investigations in the civil courts are rigorous and can shine a light into cases where healthcare is of dubious quality to find out what went wrong and enable lessons to be learnt. Indeed there is a track record of such investigations uncovering abuse and incompetence where it has occurred.
However this is about to change.
The use of the civil courts to investigate incidents within the NHS will be effectively prevented in the majority of cases by the government’s plan to introduce a “fixed costs” regime for clinical negligence cases worth up to £250,000 from October 2016. Under this, further costs are barred once an arbitrary fixed limit is reached.
The proposed limit of £250,000 will cover most injuries and deaths involving children, the elderly and disabled. Only the wealthy and those with maximum severity injury such as total paralysis and brain damage would be likely to fall outside this limit.
Only this week, Chris Ham, chief executive of the King’s Fund think tank, is quoted as saying that recent NHS Guidance “brings to an abrupt end the post Mid Staffs era when leaders of the NHS organisations saw failure to ensure safe levels of staffing as more serious than failure to balance budgets. Financial control is king”.
So it is more important than ever that the civil courts should continue to exercise a central role in safeguarding the interests of the vulnerable in our society and this must not be taken away by the proposed government reforms.