11,000 needless deaths

Two articles in the press over the weekend caught my attention. Claimant Clinical negligence lawyers are currently battling with publicity from the Government and the NHS which suggests that we encourage claims and that we charge too much for the work we do. The portrayal of claimant lawyers as ambulance chasers is of course something that we have had to put up with for many years, but most of us in the field of clinical negligence took up this work not for the fees (it is not easy to win cases, and many claims fall by the wayside with us not being paid at all) but to try to help some of the most vulnerable members of society who have been injured by those in whom they placed their trust.

It is often argued by claimant lawyers that the way for the NHS to save money is not through cutting the fees paid to lawyers and experts at the end of a successful claim against the NHS but by addressing the shortcomings which lead to these incidents in the first place. Only by reducing avoidable medical accidents can patient care (and thus the number of claims) be improved and the cost and number of claims fall.

So it was interesting to read Matthew Syed in the Times on Saturday (“How to fail (successfully)”). The article compared the manner in which the airline industry reacts to incidents with how health services do so. There were many alarming statistics quoted not least of which is that 34,000 people are killed in the UK each year due to human error in our healthcare system and that a study into acute care in Britain found that 1 in every 10 patients is killed or injured as a consequence of medical error or institutional shortcomings.

The other article which caught my eye highlighted a report in the British Medical Journal which concluded that 11,000 patients each year may be dying unnecessarily because of failures by the NHS to provide the same level of care at weekends as it does during the week. 11,000 needless deaths.

These are appalling figures and rather than bemoaning the increase in claims and in the cost of claims isn’t it a better approach to examine why the mistakes happened and take steps to avoid repetition? Although the “duty of candour” is now with us, the culture change that was supposed to encourage has not come about, even though all of the evidence is that clinical negligence claims fall when doctors deal with patients with more openness.