Negligence by maternity staff has cost NHS £3.1bn over 10 years
Jeremy Laurance is a writer on health issues. He is former health editor of The Independent and the i and has covered the specialism for more than 20 years. He thinks the harm medicine does is under-appreciated, the harm it prevents over-rated, and that cycling works better than most drugs. He was named Specialist Journalist of the Year in the 2011 British Press Awards.
Friday 26 October 2012
Botched care in pregnancy and childbirth has led to more than 5,000 successful negligence claims against the maternity services over the last decade – costing the NHS £3.1bn.
The sums paid out would be enough to build a dozen new obstetric units and hire thousands of extra consultants and midwives which could make childbirth safer.
The scandal of the maternity care payouts is revealed today in figures from the NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA) which show the current system is unfair, inefficient and a gross waste of NHS resources. It reflects the growing burden of medical negligence on the NHS which is diverting scarce resources from patient care.
Only cases where negligence can be proved get compensation – an average of £600,000 for each successful claimant – and almost 20 per cent of the money goes into lawyers’ pockets.
In the one in 10 worst-affected cases – 542 claims – the average payout was £2.4m. These involved babies born brain damaged, causing cerebral palsy and requiring 24-hour care for life.
Over the past decade, £627m has been paid out on maternity claims, of which £112 million (18 per cent) went on fees to lawyers, the NHSLA said. But with payouts continuing throughout the children’s lives, the total cost to the NHS of claims settled over the past 10 years will reach £3.1 billion.
However, babies who suffered similar catastrophic injury at birth as a result of an accident, or where negligence could not be proved, got nothing.
Ten years ago, the Government’s former chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, attempted to introduce a “no fault” scheme so that all babies injured at birth could be compensated, but his efforts came to nothing. Experts said yesterday that hiring more consultants and providing 24-hour consultant care on obstetric units could reduce the risks for all babies and save the NHS costs by cutting the compensation bill.
The NHSLA report found that in the 5,087 cases that resulted in claims, junior doctors and inexperienced midwives were involved in the management of labour without adequate senior clinician assistance.
“Having more senior staff available during labour, together with a better understanding among junior staff about when to ask them for help, may prevent harm,” it said.
NHSLA chief executive Catherine Dixon said: “Having a baby while under the care of NHS doctors and midwives remains very safe. Out of 5.5 million births in England during the decade covered by the report, about one in a thousand result in a legal claim against the NHS. However, because maternity claims are so serious as they involve harm to mothers and their babies, it’s vital that we learn and share lessons from them so that professionals can improve their clinical practice in the future and prevent harm.”
David Richmond, vice-president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said: “[We have made] a strong case for the NHS to move to a consultant-delivered service so that trainee doctors receive adequate support and women have access to qualified specialists throughout the day and night.”
Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter said: “The NHS remains one of the safest places in the world to have a baby, but no matter how well our midwives and doctors look after women giving birth, bad things still sometimes happen to a very small number of mothers and babies.”
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