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Leading Article: The scandal of medical compensation cases

THE STRUGGLES facing families whose children have been injured by negligent medical staff are nothing short of appalling. Yesterday, two families won their fights for compensation against health authorities in Bristol and Lincolnshire. But it took the parents of Ian Stewart, brain- damaged following a heart operation by cardiac surgeon James Wisheart, and Katie Phillips, who was left partially blind and paralysed after being smothered by Beverly Allitt, the nurse convicted of killing babies, years of agony to prove their cases. Last autumn, Sam Mansell, who was brain- damaged at birth, was awarded care and compensation after an 11-year fight.

The trauma of discovering that a child will be disabled, and the difficulty of providing the care and attention he or she needs, should not be aggravated by a lengthy battle for help and the worry as to whether they will ever receive it. The complaints system that allows this to happen is, frankly, scandalous.

One of the main reasons that hospital inquiries and medical negligence litigation take so long is that, once something has gone wrong, the medical profession and the NHS hide behind a fog of non-information. Often, facts and medical records have to be dragged from them under threat of court applications. This adversarial system needs to be fundamentally and culturally changed. Last year's General Medical Council guidelines, making it a disciplinary offence not to tell patients the truth if something goes wrong, are a step in the right direction. But the exemption-packed excuse for a Freedom of Information Bill has failed those in search of the truth in cases like these.

If a medical accident happens, there should be full and frank disclosure from the authorities, who should act to resolve the situation as soon as possible, working with and not against the victim. This would enable hospital inquiries to be dealt with in months at the very outside, if not a few days, and care and compensation could then be given promptly. Health authorities should be prepared to admit liability early and spare these beleaguered families the trauma of suing. An early admission of liability would also open the way to more innovative compensation schemes. These could include annual or stage payments until the full extent of the child's injuries becomes clear, replacing the need to wait until this point before taking action.

But parents should not have to battle for treatment for their children. Access to specialist therapists should be made readily available for all disabled children who need it, for whatever reason. Instead of wasting so much time, energy and money defending themselves against negligence claims and complaints, health authorities should redirect these resources to improving treatment and therapy facilities. In so doing, they would be making life easier for the families of disabled children rather than fighting them.