NI health negligence claims cost £116m over five years

It has cost Northern Ireland’s Department of Health £116m to settle legal claims for clinical and social care negligence over the past five years.

The figure is in a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General on the safety of health services in NI.

It also found health staff reported about 83,000 “adverse incidents” across the five health trusts each year.

These are when a patient was unexpectedly harmed or put at risk.

Further costs

The report stated that staff are still under-reporting such events, particularly in hospitals, and it criticised the lack of a regional system to evaluate and learn from adverse incidents.

In addition to the £116m it has cost the department, the report reveals that it could cost a further £136m to meet the costs of active negligence claims currently in the system, according to Department of Heath estimates.

The Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland (C&AG), Kieran Donnelly, is the head of the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO).

He is responsible for checking the accounts of government bodies and Stormont departments, ensuring that they are providing value for money through their expenditure.

In a statement on Tuesday, Mr Donnelly said that overall, health and social care (HSC) trusts in Northern Ireland provide “high standards of care”.

However, he said the reduction of “adverse incidents that cause, or could have caused unexpected harm to patients and clients” remained a core responsibility for the trusts and the Department of Health.

‘Fear of blame’

The comptroller said two factors were “crucial” to ensuring that was achieved.

The first was the “establishment of a culture in which incidents can be reported easily, honestly, and without fear of blame”.

The second, Mr Donnelly said, was “the ability to ensure that lessons learned from these incidents are successfully taken on board by HSC staff”.

He added that although “significant progress” had been made by the Department of Health and the trusts in both these areas, he concluded that there was “more to be done”.

Of the total £116m negligence claims bill, £77m was paid out in compensation while the remaining £39m went towards legal and administrative costs.

The chair of the assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, Michaela Boyle, said making a claim is often a last resort.

“The report does identify that the department could look at the introduction of informal dispute resolutions that offer a viable alternative to litigation for families,” she said.

“A lot more work needs to be done to ensure that the department looks at an open culture to encourage the reporting of adverse incidents.”
‘True cost’

The NIAO said the cost of negligence settlements “provides some idea of how patient and client harm can add to the financial pressure on HSC services.

“However, the true cost of adverse incidents remains unknown because the treatment costs of remedying the harm caused to patients or clients are not routinely measured,” the office added.

The report also found “considerable variation” in how the skills and knowledge of workers were appraised across HSC staff groups.