Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Suing the NHS: Yes or No?

Jeremy Vine had an interesting debate on his radio programme this lunchtime about the payments of compensation to NHS contraception 'error' victims. The essence of the argument was whether people should sue the NHS at all, or whether, as we all stump up for it within our taxes, we should just leave it alone.

Fundamentally, I believe negligence should be paid for.

If something with a relatively low risk goes catastrophically wrong due to preventable human error then the victim should be within their rights to complain about the outcome. What I don't agree with are the vast sums won in compensation claims - are they really representative of the injuries and distress someone has suffered? In the case of requiring further care and assistance then, of course, this is justified. However, mental distress resulting from an error is much more difficult to quantify and, as such, much more open to abuse from greedy individuals. So is the answer just to put a blanket ban on claiming compensation from the NHS?

Well, no. With the NHS facing a tough few years with reorganisation, efficiency savings and cuts (it's hardly as protected as it was advertised) standards will inevitably drop. Although doctors are prevented from working too many hours by EU law there is no guarantee that negligence will not be caused by other aspects of day-to-day working life: lack of training, shortage of materials, staff or information, for example. Removing the threat of claiming against the NHS simply removes the danger that the health service cuts will be seen as what they are - a dangerous attempt to reduce the deficit by putting our staple system at risk.

This is not to say that the arguments against the contraception cases are entirely without merit. No contraceptive is comprehensively reliant. Any pregnancy in these cases which has resulted from the patient being in the 1% whom the unit unfortunately failed shouldn't be open to compensation in my view. It is an inherent risk and it's one that most women take. However, several cases were highlighted where the implant had been inserted wrongly to the detriment of the health of the patient involved. One woman had suffered injuries to her muscle due to the incorrect insertion of the implant. This is negligent, whether from lack of training or just idiocy on the part of the doctor.

I don't at all believe in this compensation culture which our country seems so enamoured with. Only in cases of negligence when the person sincerely needs the money they are awarded would I say action is justified against the NHS. By all means, highlight the case, campaign tirelessly for a certain error to be recognised and/or admitted to by the health service in the name of improving the service.

Don't, however, sue the NHS simply to line your own pockets. Taking money from the rest of us in a time of deep and painful cuts isn't the way to endear yourself to anyone. After all, I'm sure the neighbour waiting for an operation which has been delayed due to lack of funds will be less than impressed with your new television bought from the proceeds of their taxes.

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