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A friend told me today that as he was driving down to work he heard an advert on the radio. It was asking patients if they had had an operation and if they were disappointed. It went on to say the lawyers could get them compensation, even if all the risks were discussed with them. Some people listening to advert this might think all patients have a right to sue their doctors if something goes wrong.
I heard a presentation on this today and was so surprised to learn that the lawyer’s fees on both sides are more than half of what the patient gets. A lot of lawyers are getting really rich as a result. Good for them. They have spotted an opportunity and gone for it.
The NHS Litigation authority website states that as of March 2014 their potential liabilities were £26.1 billion! Each hospital trust has to pay several million pounds from its budget every year to the NHS litigation authority. This is money that could of course be also used for improving patient care. If we could find a way of taking the money we as tax payers pay the lawyers and put that into patient care, we would transform the NHS for the better.
A dentist I went to see recently showed me a magazine with an advert from a legal firm asking patients if they were less than happy with their dental care and promising them compensation. In the same magazine was an advert from another firm of lawyers asking if patients were happy with the money they received from litigation and they could help them sue their lawyers and get them more compensation.
There is another effect all this growing litigation is having – one that is beyond the cost and should worry us all. It is changing the way doctors think and how they treat patients. I have spoken to many doctors who say their practise is becoming more defensive. As a result many doctors are shying away from treating patients with complex problems or those where outcomes are uncertain. We may also be ordering many more investigations than are necessary. Some experienced doctors I know are leaving the profession altogether, unwilling to live with the risk of constant litigation while trying to do the best for their patients.
As a middle aged man, getting older, I worry that this growing culture of litigation in the country is going to affect the care I get when I need it most. We should all worry.
Is there a way around this problem? As a society we all need to accept that medicine is not an infallible business, and mistakes will happen. If a procedure does not go the way I would have liked, and I was told about all the risks, I should not be able to sue my doctor. We need to get help and compensation to those who have genuinely come to harm and do it in a way that is inexpensive, and quick and still allows doctors to risk being brave and go and bat for us without the worry of being sued each time. I am sure a way can be found, if we all put our heads together.