NHS paying the price for medical mistakes

The NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA) recently published a study on NHS legal costs which is sure to make alarming reading for the government and healthcare professionals. The study found that the NHS has amassed a legal bill of £3.1bn over the last 10 years largely due to errors in maternity care which are still rife within the nation’s hospitals. Maternity claims proved to be the most costly type of medical negligence litigation according to the NHSLA study, with 5,087 such claims filed between 2000 and 2010. With care costs only set to increase in the future, payouts are likely to be more expensive and thus the NHS is tasked with cutting its medical mistakes.

Over a third of all litigation claims relate to the management of labour, caesarean sections and cerebral palsy and as much as £9m is thought to have been paid out for drug errors alone. Such claims represent an unwelcome drain on NHS resources, which is particularly damaging at a time when NHS managers are grappling with austerity cuts made to their frontline services. The average settled maternity claim is reported to take over 4 years, and in more complicated cases with damages over £1m this average reaches an even more time consuming 8.57 years.

Clearly, as the report suggests, radical institutional changes are needed in the NHS in order to reduce the number of costly mistakes. Risk management across the service must be improved, meaning that incidents and complaints must be recorded, analysed and communicated across departments meticulously and routinely. Improving staff training by adding compulsory modules and encouraging better communication between staff could also see maternity services improve and legal expenditure come down.

Mike Farrar, Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, rightly drew attention to the fact that we are still very privileged to have access to a very high standard of maternity care in the UK. However, this is not to say that improvements cannot be made to the service and the NHS must begin to cut the legal costs incurred by so many medical mistake claims.

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