Soaring health negligence costs

Slow pace of reform not in the interests of patients or the State

 

According to the head of the State Claims Agency (SCA), the cost of meeting medical negligence claims next year is likely to reach €300 million. A record amount, the costs involved are a “significant” challenge for the agency, Ciarán Breen said. Obstetric claims form the single biggest category; in 2014, they cost €58m, representing an 80 per cent rise on the 2010 figure. Some €47m of the 2014 total related to cases of cerebral palsy.

Speaking at a patient safety conference last week, Dr Sharon Sheehan, master of the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital, said that staffing problems made it difficult to mitigate the risk to patient safety in the maternity system. Emerging challenges include rising levels of obesity among women and advanced maternal age. She called for better reporting of patient safety incidents.

At the same event Minister for Health Simon Harris 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 Health Service Executive and the SCA have initiated an open disclosure project in the health service: it includes expressing regret for what has happened, keeping the patient informed, and providing feedback on the steps taken to prevent a recurrence of the adverse event. However the Minister’s comments are an acknowledgement that despite the initiative, some frontline services have yet to embrace open disclosure. And while he did not make specific reference to the point, it will be important for the bill to legislate for a formal duty of candour for healthcare professionals.

The Minister also said he hoped plans for reform of the law concerning medical injury cases will ensure funds are spent on awards and not the legal system. He would do well to start with cerebral palsy. It is time that awards for the condition, linked to birth but where exact causation may be unclear, were decoupled from the legal system. A humane and non-adversarial redress system for these patients is long overdue.

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