A leading medical negligence lawyer has welcomed plans outlined by Jeremy Hunt to ensure that lessons are learned in the NHS but warned that a new voluntary compensation scheme for parents, whose babies are damaged at birth, must provide the same level of support and redress currently available through the courts.
The Health Secretary announced the new scheme today alongside a raft of measures which he said was intended to create a culture where NHS staff can speak more openly.
The new voluntary "rapid resolution and redress" scheme proposed by Mr Hunt would see parents, who believed medical errors had caused their children harm, able to have their claim assessed by investigators working independently from the NHS trust and considered by a panel of experts.
Russell Levy the head of medical negligence at Leigh Day said that any measures aimed at reducing the number of still births, avoiding negligence and providing answers to parents is to be welcomed.
However, Mr Levy added: “All hospitals already have systems in place for ‘Serious Untoward Incident’ (SUI) investigations in all cases where there may have been avoidable severe neurological injury or death. Regrettably, we find that in many of the cases where the NHS eventually accept that care has been negligent or where Courts find against them, there has previously been a SUI report suggesting that the care was acceptable, and in some cases even exemplary.
“Whilst the test for liability would be the same as before, under this new scheme the Government want their panel, rather than the Courts, to decide whether or not there has been negligence causing injury or death. We would be concerned that this new approach will not uncover the full facts of cases.
Also, any compensation awarded under the scheme must be full and fair compensation not some cut-price scheme. Payments are made to cater for the lifelong needs of injured children- there is no legitimate scope for reducing them, and I think most people will be shocked to discover that under English law the compensation awarded to parents whose children are stillborn, or die in the first few days of life, because of negligence is usually less than £25,000.
In launching the proposals this morning, the Health Secretary suggested that the scheme would assess around 500 cases a year and help dismantle what it sees as a "litigation culture".
However medical negligence lawyers have dismissed this as a myth, saying that rather than there being a litigation culture, there is a culture of silence or avoidance in the NHS. Mr Levy explained:
“It is down to the injured patient or the family of an injured or dead child to prove everything. Lawyers representing families and those injured, have to gather all the evidence from often recalcitrant trusts where a policy of silence is seen as the best defence, even when questions need answering and lessons must be learned.”
Speaking on ITV's Good Morning Britain, Mr Hunt said there was a need to drive down the UK's stillbirth rate as well as create a culture of openness when things go wrong.
He said: "When you look at stillbirths, there are 20 wealthy countries who have a better rate than we do, and if we could match what they do, we could save the heartache for thousands and thousands of parents."
Mr Hunt said there were a number of reasons for this, explaining: "One of them is that we make it very difficult for doctors and midwives and nurses, when things go wrong, to do the one thing they really want to do more than anything else, which is to learn from their mistakes so that they can spread those lessons across the whole NHS.
In a speech at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) later, Mr Hunt will also set out plans to make GB£8 million available for training, and a GB£250,000 maternity safety innovation fund.
Mr Levy concluded: “Whilst we remain doubtful about how the rapid redress and resolution scheme will work, the Health Secretary’s commitment to lowering the instances of stillbirth and providing more resources for maternity units is certainly a step in the right direction”.