In the United Kingdom we have a compensation culture that has gained a reputation that is as big and as profitable as many other nations around the world, particularly the USA. Thanks to the ever-increasing amount of commercials on radio and television – as well as internet banners, hoardings, magazines and even in sports grounds – promoting the services of legal firms specialising in medical incidents that were not your fault, the amount of compensation claims has grown steadily in the last few years. With such an increase in claims the Government has ordered a review into the sector, which could result in a different perspective on how compensation claims will work in the future.
Most of us will know somebody who has made a compensation claim and if you ask anyone in the UK their thoughts on the ‘compensation culture’ they will agree it is more prevalent and independent statistics back this up. According to an article on medicalnegligenceassist.co.uk, recent research shows that between 2008 and 2013 the number of compensation claims increased by 80%, with 20% of that increasing in the last year.
The NHS Litigation Authority has reported that their latest statistics discovered the highest cumulative amount ever awarded in compensation claims was from 2015 to 2016, meaning that the National Health Service paid out £1.4 billion in compensation, an increase of £0.4 billion the year before.
Northern Ireland’s health trusts’ 2016-17 financial year saw £94 million paid out in negligence cases which comprised £70 million for damages plus £24 million in the associated legal costs. If the compensation culture continues to grow at this speed, experts predict the NHS may end up bankrupt with the amount of medical negligence compensation being awarded – with their latest bill a hefty £65 billion.
The big debate is how much longer the NHS can last under so many pressures and industry experts are concerned not only about the longevity of the UK medical services but also how the compensation culture is affecting it. With compensation claims continuously taking funds away from the NHS, experts agree that the ability to continue providing high quality medical care is severely at risk.
With this in mind, organisations such as the NHS Confederation, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and the British Medical Association want the relevant authorities to apply controls, pressing the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor to reform NHS policies before it is too late.
In an effort to save the NHS these parties have written an appeal to the Government stating:
“The rising cost of clinical negligence is unsustainable and means that vast amounts of resources, which could be used more effectively, have to be diverted elsewhere. We fully accept that there must be reasonable compensation for patients harmed through clinical negligence, but this needs to be balanced against society’s ability to pay. This money could be spent on frontline care. Given the wider pressures on the healthcare system, the rising cost of clinical negligence is already having an impact on what the NHS can provide.”
If any reforms were to be approved there could be limits put in place on the amount of monies that can be awarded to anyone who makes a hospital negligence compensation claim. This follows on from the legal overhaul of whiplash claims, brought on by the massive financial impact such claims have had on vehicle insurance. Whiplash claim payouts have been capped and industry experts are demanding the same action on medical negligence claims in an attempt to rescue the NHS before it crumbles under the financial pressure.
With the line between what is legally considered medical negligence and what is human error receiving government attention, the former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt decided earlier this year that the compensation culture needed examining, with potentially new, stricter reforms being brought in. Not only is the NHS feeling the pressure of budget impacts, they are also experiencing a shortage of qualified staff as well as many other negative impacts due to compensation claims, leading to Hunt expressing fears that the NHS and its staff is being backed into a corner.
Add to this the always constant funding cuts and excessive working hours many NHS staff are trying to make the best out of an increasingly bad situation. These pressures mean what resources the NHS do have are being spread to thinly and are causing preventable mistakes, incidents and negligence to occur, more frequently than anyone would want.
The idea of having higher consequences for medical professionals accused of negligence – including heavy fines and being struck off – as well as providing inadequate care brings more worry to Jeremy Hunt who has expressed concern that medical professionals may stop seeking pastoral care if and when they need it. In a speech to the House of Commons, Hunt expressed there should be a priority for them to “ensure there is clarity about where the line is drawn between gross negligence manslaughter and ordinary human error in medical practice so that doctors and other health professionals know where they stand with respect to criminal liability or professional misconduct.”
The compensation culture – and whether there should be stricter regulations – has caused medical, governmental, public and legal forces to unite. This is now a highly important time for the NHS as well as its surrounding powers as currently there are hardly any rules in place relating to compensation claims.
The proposed changes that may be implemented in the compensation sector, many in the near future, means legal experts are having to make sure they stay ahead of the game as well as having to investigate whether these changes will have any impact on the way they work, the services they provide and the levels of monies being claimed for. However, the issue is still in the Government’s court and with a new Health Secretary it is unclear what their next move may be.