Medical negligence pay-outs double in three years

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Compensation payments made to patients suing doctors for negligence have nearly doubled in three years, according to figures published yesterday.

Compensation payments made to patients suing doctors for negligence have nearly doubled in three years, according to figures published yesterday.

The Medical Defence Union (MDU), which represents doctors in negligence claims, paid out a record £77m in compensation last year, almost double the £41m distributed in 1996 and more than twice the amount paid out in 1990.

The union blamed the soaring cost of negligence on more patients resorting to the courts and a trend towards higher awards, rather than on falling standards among doctors.

The £77m paid out by the MDU is just a fraction of the overall cost of negligence to the National Health Service.

In April the National Audit Office found that health authorities spent £1bn in 1998-99 on settled claims, and another £2.4bn had yet to be paid in cases where the patient was thought likely to win.

Yesterday Dr Michael Saunders, chief executive of the MDU, said: "The rise in litigation is not attributable to a fall in clinical standards - quite the opposite. But it is indisputable that the medico-legal climate has changed dramatically over the last 10 years.

"Patients and their relatives are bringing more claims, and the amounts awarded in compensation are getting higher, principally because of the increasing costs of caring for damaged patients."

He referred to a brain-damaged patient, Therese Hunt, who received £3m compensation from the NHS. Therese, 10, from Romford, Essex, won the damages from the West London Hospital, Hammersmith, after she was left with cerebral palsy because she was starved of oxygen during birth.

A House of Lords ruling in 1998 has led to much bigger awards for patients who suffered damage at birth or in early childhood, and who need to cover the cost of equipment and care all their lives.

A Court of Appeal ruling in March could lead to awards increasing by up to one-third in all cases where pain and suffering can be proved. The judges ruled that compensation had not kept pace with standards of living.

In October the MDU agreed to settle a case for £1.5m after Richard Sheppard, a London businessman, sued his GP for more than £4m. He was left with permanent brain damage after he suffered a massive heart attack. His doctor had prescribed indigestion relief when he complained about chest pains.

In another case involving the union, Philippa Brand, a secretary and former cordon bleu chef, won £468,750 damages in December. She went through a personality change and found she could no longer cook after she suffered a stroke when her GP wrongly put her on the contraceptive pill.

Other claimants who have been awarded huge payouts include the family of Gavin Sebborn, 22, who received an undisclosed five-figure sum from Nottingham City Hospital. The hospital admitted liability after Mr Sebborn contracted malaria from a contaminated drip and died while he was being treated for a severe chest infection. He died on 15 March 1999 from the disease.

Seamus Kinsella, 37, was awarded £112,000 after doctors removed three-quarters of his stomach in 1989, wrongly thinking that he had cancer. Mr Kinsella, from Walsgrave, Coventry, was awarded the damages from Coventry Health Authority in an out-of-court settlement in January this year.

Great Ormond Street paid £65,000 damages to the parents of a 12-year-old boy who died on 30 July 1997 after cancer-treating drugs were injected into his spine instead of a vein. The hospital made the out-of-court settlement in July this year after admitting liability for Richie William's death.

The most common claims against family doctors are for prescribing the wrong drugs (26 per cent), failure to diagnose a medical condition (30 per cent), and problems relating to pregnancy and labour (10 per cent), said an MDU spokeswoman.

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