What medical negligence is costing the NHS (financially and beyond)

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Since its inception in 1948, the NHS has been the UK’s pride and joy and the envy of countries around the world where residents have to pay through the nose for medical treatments and prescriptions. Being able to provide free healthcare to all was a vital part of creating social equality in the nation and ensuring the wellbeing of women, workers, and children of all backgrounds. However, less than a hundred years on, the promise of free healthcare seems increasingly unsustainable as the NHS continues to haemorrhage staff and the quality of care provided is repeatedly found wanting, evidenced by a recent spike in medical negligence claims.

What is medical negligence costing the NHS?

In 2020-2021 alone, the NHS spent £7.9 billion on clinical negligence claims. Although this was a slight reduction on the £8.3 billion total in the previous year, this is still almost 5% of the funding that was allocated to health services by the Department of Health and Social Care for the same twelve-month period. When you consider that the total spend on clinical negligence claims in 1975 was just £1 million, even taking into account inflation the current cost to the NHS is staggeringly out of proportion.

This trend is clearly financially unsustainable and is also raising concern about the quality of healthcare provided by the NHS, potentially causing long-term damage to the organisation’s reputation. Patient complaints are on the rise with around 12,000 choosing to use the services of solicitors who specialise in medical negligence to submit cases against the NHS in 2021, an all-time high of the last decade.

What is causing the rise in clinical negligence costs?

Looking back over the last five years, it is perhaps not surprising that the NHS has been struggling to deliver the expected standard of care to all of their patients (which number in the millions annually). Shortages of doctors and nurses following Brexit have led to a crisis in hospital staffing with overworked medical practitioners suffering from burnout during the Covid-19 pandemic and staff continuing to feel ‘under siege’ by the influx of patients making appointments post-lockdown.

In particular, claims relating to maternity care have been the biggest medical negligence cost to the NHS. Although accounting for just 10% of complaints, these claims can involve lifelong compensation such as in cases where the NHS is found to have been responsible for causing serious disability. Maternity malpractice connected with the NHS has been a regular feature in news headlines over the last few months as the Shrewsbury Maternity Report highlighted a series of catastrophic failings across a 20-year period that had tragic consequences for mothers and their babies.

How are the NHS combating these issues?

Although there is no quick-fix solution to the staffing crisis that is exacerbating the service issues most commonly connected to clinical negligence cases, such as misdiagnosis, the government is taking steps to safeguard the NHS against the rising cost of medical negligence claims. A new cap will be set to ensure that legal costs for lower value cases are more proportionate, but still fair, while a more streamlined process for submitting and addressing clinical negligence claims will help patients to be prioritised appropriately and secure faster solutions. These proposals, set out earlier this year, could save the NHS half a billion pounds over the next ten years.