Gynaecology faces record claims

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Britain's gynaecologists are facing record numbers of claims for damages from patients.

One department of a Merseyside hospital is handling litigation involving 146 former patients, and nationally it is estimated that obstetricians and gynaecologists are dealing with 10,000 cases.

Publicity over large payouts - pounds 2m for a negligent birth resulting in brain damage and pounds 100,000 for a failed sterilization - is believed to be partly responsible for the huge increase. The Department of Health does not keep data on either the number of legal cases or the amounts paid out, but one consultant at the Arrowe Park Hospital, Merseyside, has carried out his own research.

Brian Alderman, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, has written to the British Medical Journal detailing what he describes as the dramatic increase in cases and the extra workload caused by the claims.

"In January my department had 146 cases of litigation in process and I have no reason to suspect that our hospital attracts more litigation than similar hospitals in Britain," he said.

But most of the cases will never get to court and increasing numbers of claims, almost all of which are legally aided, are regarded as speculative.

"I'd say that the majority of claims, more than 90 per cent, are just try-ons and they hardly go beyond the first solicitor's letter, but they still require a great deal of time, effort and money to resolve," said Mr Alderman yesterday. "We have lawyers who do nothing but work for the hospitals, and there are firms of solicitors who do nothing but work on behalf of patients.

"I have worked out that I spend the equivalent of three weeks a year solely on this kind of thing."

He says cases have included:

A woman who blamed her miscarriage on tripping over on hospital premises.

A patient who was sterilized and then started legal action two years later because she could not have a baby.

A wife who wanted to keep her operation a secret from her husband alleged breach of confidentiality when he opened a letter the hospital had written to her at home.

A mother who alleged her son had been brain damaged at birth who started legal action 24 years after he was born (the statute of limitations on obstetric cases is 25 years).

Another mother who started legal proceedings after finding a pinprick on her 10-month-old baby's head caused by a heart monitor electrode that had been put there when he was born to help save his life.

Alan Brown, chairman of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists' medical legal committee, said: "There has been an increase in litigation and obstetricians and gynaecologists are very much in the firing line.

"If something goes wrong people will almost automatically seek a legal opinion. At any one time there are many thousands of cases being handled."