Family questions: When patients die


The death of Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital last October shone a light on the issue of what happens when patients die in the care of the State.

Every year thousands of patients die in Irish hospitals in medically unremarkable circumstances. But in a tiny minority of cases, loved ones are left with questions about the treatment received by their family member.

The Halappanavar case highlighted the lack of clarity in cases where bereaved family members are seeking answers or even an investigation. In such situations, to whom in the health service can families turn? And what right have they to an investigation into their loved one’s death?

The HSE has designated staff to deal with complaints, and an internal appeals process is in place. Anyone unhappy with the outcome is advised to contact the Ombudsman, but you can’t go down this route if you’re taking a legal case.

More information from the HSE is available on healthcomplaints.iebut this website contains no reference to investigations being carried out into specific incidents. It is rare for the HSE’s national incident management team to publish a report on an incident, as it will in the Halappanavar case.

According to personal injury solicitor Edward McGarr, the only port of call for people seeking investigations into deaths in the health system is the coroner. The coroner can decide to hold an inquest and has the power to call witnesses, but is precluded from making findings of fault.

“Most deaths in hospitals are perfectly natural, but where negligence is involved the hatches are battened down and nothing happens at speed,” says Mr McGarr.

If a settlement is reached before a court hearing, it is rare for the wider public to learn about the case.