Why are medical negligence claims on the rise?
Recent statistics which have been published by the Department of Health show that medical negligence cases have increased over a 5-year period since 2017. According to the statistics 3972 medical negligence cases were lodged in 2020/2021 which is an increase of 225 from 2016/2017.
The data indicates that the most common medical negligence claims relate to:
Accident and Emergency;
Our experience has been that issues have arisen in these areas for a variety of reasons which include but are not limited to; pressures caused by Covid-19, poorly resourced A&E services and the Belfast Trust Neurology scandal.
The impact of Covid-19
Covid-19 has had a significant impact on our public health system. Issues such as lengthy waiting lists, lack of hospital beds and staffing shortages have been well reported throughout the pandemic. The pandemic undoubtedly highlighted a number of weaknesses, many of which were already apparent prior to the pandemic.
There were fewer urgent cancer referrals made during the pandemic. This may be partially attributable to the lack of face-to-face contact with GPs throughout the early stages of the pandemic in particular. The waiting lists for first attendances with NHS Consultants have also increased with 53% of patients waiting over one year to see a consultant.
It is clear that Covid-19 has exacerbated, rather than caused, many of the problems faced by health care services at presents. Backlogs have increased and this has undoubtedly led to an increase in adverse outcomes for patients which, in turn, can often lead to medical negligence claims.
Accident and Emergency Services
Accident and emergency services are currently at a crisis stage in Northern Ireland. Recent Department of Health statistics indicate that 7508 (12% of all hospital admissions) have waited over 12 hours in A&E wards during December 2021.
This is clearly an unacceptable standard of care given that many A&E attendees have serious acute injuries which require prompt treatment. A recent statement from the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust indicated that Ulster Hospital were under extreme pressure and that people should not attend A&E unless their condition is ‘life threatening.’
This is indicative of wider problems with accident and emergency care in Northern Ireland. An urgent review of the delivery of A&E services is required otherwise incidents of medical negligence will continue to occur and the public’s overall confidence in A&E services could be irreparably damaged.
Belfast Trust Neurology Scandal
A significant contributing factor to the rise in medical negligence claims is the scandal surrounding neurology services in the Belfast Trust and, in particular, the recall of approximately 3000 patients since 2018.
This was the largest ever patient recall in Northern Ireland and has resulted in hundreds of medical negligence claims being lodged against the Belfast Trust. Many of the negligence cases relate to treatment provided by Dr. Michael Watt, Consultant Nuerologist. Many patients who were treated by Dr. Watt spanning a period of 20 years have been recalled for a review of their diagnosis and treatment.
It is therefore unsurprising that neurology claims have increased in this period. A statutory public inquiry in to neurology services in the Belfast Trust has also commenced.