Hospital Blunder Caseload Soars

More than 2,000 charges of medical negligence have been made against Northern Ireland hospitals since 2001, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal. In total, 2,279 charges of medical negligence have been made against the 19 health trusts between 2001 and 2006, according to documents that have been obtained by this newspaper.

Of these cases, 341 have been dismissed, 338 upheld and a staggering 1,600 are ‘outstanding’. A Londonderry-based lawyer who specialises in clinical negligence said the situation is “far from ideal” and urged hospitals to admit ” accidents happen”.

Hospitals can be liable to pay compensation for the negligence of their employees, including doctors, nurses and technicians. Total costs for negligence cases here are being collated.

Bigger health trusts that deal with a large amount of patients have a higher number of claims against them. For example, the Royal Group of Hospitals is currently involved in more than 300 cases. The total number of charges made against it since 2001 is 411. Of those, 79 were dismissed, 31 upheld and 301 are yet to be dealt with.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the trust said: “The Royal Hospitals treat 500,000 patients each year and is the regional trauma centre for Northern Ireland – treating the largest number of complex conditions.

“Once someone instigates a medical negligence case, the Royal Hospitals are obliged to follow the correct legal procedure. This is often a lengthy process and can sometimes takes years before a case is resolved.”

But Caroline McGonagle, a lawyer specialising in clinical negligence with Campbell Fitzpatrick, said trusts could do much more to expedite cases.

“There will be a percentage that do lead to litigation but not many. Clinical negligence cases are extremely time-consuming and labour-intensive.

“Many of these cases require applications for legal aid, then all the client’s medical documents have to be retrieved. You have to then retain experts from across the water and send them the documents,” she said.

“That alone can take months and sometimes the case may have to be referred to a different sort of expert who may need different documents.

“It is far from ideal. Everything is denied from the word go by hospitals; nothing is admitted. There is not nearly enough openness in the entire process.

“At the end of the day, accidents happen. There needs to be some recognition of that. If something has happened it will come out eventually. Admitting it earlier would be much more cost effective.”

Altnagelvin Trust has 179 outstanding medical negligence charges out of a six-year total of 218. Only 39 have been cleared, 26 dismissed and 13 upheld.
The hospital conceded that, sometimes, “things go wrong”.

“Very regrettably, in systems which are as complex as those in health and social care, on occasion things go wrong and the treatment patients receive does not meet expectations,” a spokeswoman said.

“As a result, patients take the matter to litigation. It is important that hospitals learn lessons from these incidents to identify clinical risks and improve on patient care in the future.

“It is also important to recognise that, regrettable although they are, the number of clinical negligence claims must be shown against a context of, for example in the year 2005-06, over 28,000 in-patient attendances, over 17,000 day case attendances, almost 170,000 outpatient attendances, and almost 50,000 A&E attendances.”

DUP MP Gregory Campbell said the new Health Minister in a devolved government should make addressing the backlog “a main priority”. He said: “I would imagine that, from a health professional’s point of view, the trend must be very disturbing.”

Meanwhile, in reply to a parliamentary question from DUP MP Iris Robinson, Health Minister Paul Goggins has revealed that £11m has been set aside to cover clinical negligence costs in Northern Ireland in 2007-08.