The recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme (3 October 2011) revealed that failing doctors are still slipping through the system and there are clearly still some fundamental problems concerning the monitoring and regulation of doctors. Many of the recommendations from the £25 million Shipman Enquiry for safeguarding patients are still to be implemented.

As the Government prepares to hand over more control and responsibility to Britain's GPs, clinical negligence lawyers are increasingly concerned that the combination of the rising number of claims against GPs for incorrect diagnosis together with the lack of sanctions against incompetent GPs present a growing threat to patients.

Philippa Luscombe, clinical negligence partner at Penningtons Solicitors LLP, says: "Over the last five years, Penningtons has investigated over 40 claims against GPs of which more than 50% have already settled costing more than £1 million. The remaining claims continue with new potential claims being referred to us every day. The vast majority of these relate to either failure to diagnose correctly or delay in diagnosis resulting in death, more extensive treatment, slower recovery and/or increased anxiety and stress. A significant proportion of GP negligence appears to include failure to pick up on symptoms of early stage cancer and refer for investigation in accordance with NICE guidelines to include breast, bladder and bowel cancer.

"The Dispatches programme revealed to the public what we already know: that there are still plenty of GPs whose failure to diagnose correctly has a knock on cost for the NHS at a time when scarce resources need to be carefully targeted. We welcome any light that Dispatches may have shone into these dark corners."

A recent case illustrates how a GP's delay in reaching a correct diagnoses has not only cost our client several years of his life but has cost implications for the NHS for his long-term treatment and care.

Late diagnosis of bladder cancer

Our client presented at his GP surgery with blood in his urine in September 2006. A mid stream urine (MSU) sample was taken and antibiotics given but, when he visited the surgery a month later, a further MSU was advised but not taken and at neither appointment was he referred for further investigations. In June 2007, our client presented once again at his GP surgery with diminishing urine flow. A month later his GP suggested that a urological referral was appropriate but this was not marked urgent and our client was left to organise his own appointment which was eventually made for October 2007. In the meantime, our client had a further episode of bleeding and attended the practice nurse in September 2007.

In October 2007, he underwent an ultrasound and cystoscopy at The Royal Sussex County Hospital which showed a mass in the left lateral wall of the bladder. Bladder cancer was confirmed and he was referred for urgent surgery as this had already spread to the lymph glands locally rendering it inoperable.

We then made a claim on behalf of our client alleging that there was a failure by his GP in referring him for an urgent urological assessment in September 2006 and failure to follow up in October 2006. As a result, the claimant suffered the development of invasive and incurable bladder cancer requiring chemotherapy and resulting in a poor prognosis. His life expectancy was severely reduced.

We advised the claimant on the possible aspects of the claim open to him to include the option of pursuing a dependency claim by his wife and family following his death as well as a potential claim for lost years. The claim was successfully settled for in excess of £250,000 following a full admission of liability by the defendant.

Says Kay Taylor, the  associate who handled this case: "While this case resulted in a successful financial outcome for our client, it cannot compensate for his reduced life expectancy and quality of life. The unacceptable reality is that many GPs continue to practice and endanger their patients' lives without monitoring and further sanctions should be regarded as a priority by both the NHS and the Government."