The press focuses on the fact that claims against hospitals continue to rise and that last year the Government set aside nearly £19 billion to cover compensation claims. Before jumping to conclusions, let’s understand the context - the facts behind the figures.
There are three reasons why the amount of damages paid out is going up. Firstly, if the NHS injures more people through falling standards, it will result in more claims. Secondly, those poor people who end up the most severely injured as a result of medical negligence are living longer. Thirdly, if the injuries inflicted (particularly in a number of the recent scandals) are more severe, they will obviously cost more to compensate.
When a patient is severely injured, he has high costs of future care. Each year, money will be spent on caring for such people’s needs – in some cases this may be round the clock care. Disabled people have much longer life expectancies than only a decade ago. Life expectancies for serious disabilities have increased by 50 – 100 per cent. The costs of care continue over a longer period of time, costing the wrongdoer - in this case the NHS - more.
Survival rates for the most serious injuries are increasing, which is good news. However, this also means that people are living with serious injuries who would previously not have survived at all. A baby with cerebral palsy, where the baby is brain damaged at birth, would have rarely survived a few years ago. Now, babies survive but need a lot of care.
What these costs do not demonstrate is rising legal bills. The cost per claim has actually gone down, and therefore it is wrong to point the finger at lawyers driving up these costs. A claim is only settled, and the lawyers paid, where someone has been genuinely injured. You only have to pick up a daily newspaper to see that hospital standards are falling – time and time again there is a story showing that there is a massive public health scandal here.
If the Government and the NHS want to reduce the costs of claims they need to stop injures happening in the first place. In an environment of cuts, there is a debate to be had as to whether there will remain enough money in the NHS system to provide for proper care for patients. Will the problem worsen over time?
Part of a lawyer’s job is to properly quantify claims and work out exactly what injured people need to provide for their future care. Lawyers bring great expertise to claims, and in particular, the precise calculation of compensation. Being injured should never mean being consigned to poverty, unable to afford proper care when the compensation has run out. Nor should it be the case that those injured through no fault of their own by the NHS should then have to rely on the cash-strapped NHS for their care needs.
No one deserves to be injured. Prevention, learning from mistakes, and a real focus on patient care is the best way to reduce the costs of claims. Claims only cost the NHS when people are injured on its watch. The scandal isn’t the rising cost of claims, it is the rising number of injuries. Let’s focus on cause, rather than effect.