The rising cost of medical negligence claims

The number of medical negligence claims has been rising in recent years with estimates citing a figure of £15.7 billion in costs for the NHS for the years 2009/10. This continues to increase, with over 8,000 claims brought against the NHS last year. This picture is similar across the UK, as a BBC report in August showed figures in payouts by NHS Wales almost doubled in three years, rising by £18 million. Whilst this may indicate that more patients are getting justified payouts, it will also have a significant impact on a health system already under strain from budget cuts.

The rising costs may be due to the number of payouts for individuals who suffered disabling brain damage at birth as a result of clinical negligence. Rather than receiving only a lump sum, these payments will continue throughout the life of the individual. These incidents will have a dramatic impact upon families and as such the payments are needed to help the family and individual adjust. As improvements in care for those suffering from brain damage improves and life expectancy increases, the NHS is forced to continue these payments over increasingly longer periods of time.

The rise may also be due to the number of victims who have recently been successful at trial, claiming for incidents which occurred a number of years ago. In September a woman was awarded a lump sum payment of £2.2 million and will receive periodical payments totalling £3.3 million, for brain damage at her birth 18 years ago. This may suggest that legal representation for victims of medical negligence has improved, allowing more people to bring forward successful claims.

It was revealed in September that legal aid in England is five times as generous as in the rest of Europe, with far more cases receiving public funding than in many other countries. The report by the Council of Europe found that 1, 286 cases were granted aid per 100, 000 residents in England and Wales, compared with a European average of 831. With legal help being more readily available to victims, it is likely that more people will go to the effort of seeking payments for unsatisfactory NHS care, including those cases with less significant effects.

These payouts demanded of the NHS will naturally have a wider impact, especially as the health service is continuing to struggle under budget cuts. As a result of the £15 million plus costs at the beginning of the year, the NHS Litigation Authority has claimed it will need an addition £3 billion more than estimated to settle claims against health trusts over the next decade. This will divert already limited funds away from vital patient care, it is feared.

Medical negligence claims can be hugely beneficial to those who have suffered lifelong injury or disability. However, if payments continue to rise the quality of patient care may fall, putting additional strains on the NHS budget.