Cost of medical negligence claims ‘to top €300m in 2017’

State Claims Agency boss says the organisation faces its highest bill yet next year

Minister for Health Simon Harris, with Ciarán Breen, director of the  State Claims Agency at the Quality, Patient Safety and Clinical Risk conference at Dublin Castle. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Minister for Health Simon Harris, with Ciarán Breen, director of the State Claims Agency at the Quality, Patient Safety and Clinical Risk conference at Dublin Castle. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

The cost of meeting medical negligence claims next year is likely to reach €300m, the highest figure yet, the head of the State Claims Agency has said.

The costs of claims are a “significant” challenge for the agency, with claims related to maternity services proving “particularly challenging”, Ciarán Breen said.

Mr Breen also said that the agency faced another challenge from media reports which suggested it had a “defend and deny” position in maternity claims cases, when that was “very far from the truth”.

Mr Breen made the comments while addressing Irish and international healthcare professionals at the agency’s conference in Dublin, which was titled Quality, Patient Safety and Clinical Risk.

In 2014, claims relating to obstetrics cost some €58m, of which €47m related to cerebral palsy claims, the conference heard.

This represented an 80 per cent rise on the 2010 figure of €32m for maternity services claims.

Dr Sharon Sheehan, master of the Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital, said Ireland had the highest fertility rate among OECD countries and our maternity services are “under pressure” as a result of “chronic underinvestment” and a staffing situation which was “in crisis”.

Despite “enormous advances” in services, declining perinatal deaths and a very low maternal death rate, media headlines are dominated by contrary claims, “terrifying” pregnant women and hospital staff, she said.

She said the National Maternity Strategy launched this year must be adequately resourced over the next decade, with all of the State’s 19 maternity hospitals offering the same standard of care.

She said there should not be different standards in care based on a “postcode lottery” and that it was “completely unacceptable” that, for instance, most of the 19 units do not offer foetal anomaly screening.

The staffing “crisis” has had a serious impact on staff morale and made it increasingly difficult to mitigate risk in services, she said.

Ms Sheehan said consultants here have to look after more than twice the number of births as their Scottish counterparts, and the shortage of midwives must also be addressed.

She said retaining staff is crucial but the message must also go out that “we are hiring”.

Challenges

Other challenges facing the maternity services include women patients presenting with obesity, advanced maternal age and assisted reproductive techniques, the need for training, resources, leadership and governance and addressing a “severe lack of public confidence”, she said.

She said patient safety is a clinical and corporate responsibility and there must be local ownership of it, with staff involved in finding solutions.

The more reporting there is of incidents, the greater the potential for patient safety within an organisation, she said.

Earlier on Monday, Minister for Health Simon Harris said a national patient safety office will open later this year to lead a programme of “significant” patient safety reforms.

He said he was committed to “progressing” a health information and patient safety Bill, aimed at encouraging open disclosure of incidents relating to patient safety.

The Minister said he hoped that plans for reform of the law concerning medical injury cases, particularly catastrophic injury cases, will ensure funds are spent on awards, “not the legal system”.

Legislation providing for phased payments that ensure the lifelong needs of the catastrophically injured are met is also a priority for the Government, he said.