Working Together to Improve Patient Safety

08 November 2017

Every year in England patients are accidentally harmed as a result of receiving medical treatment. In 2014 alone, over 480,000 patient safety incidents which caused harm were recorded in hospitals in England1. In order to reduce the risk of these incidents occurring again, it’s essential to address each incident, scrutinise what went wrong and establish robust processes in order to minimise future risks.

Everyone who utilises healthcare services in the UK should feel empowered to drive forward these positive changes in patient care. So what can you do to help our healthcare services to reduce the occurrence of avoidable accidents?

Taking Responsibility

Of the 480,333 incidents recorded…

Graph - only 2% medical negligence claims

This means that 98% of these incidents might not have been fully scrutinised.

For every instance of medical negligence that goes unchallenged, steps may not have been taken to address the underlying issue. As a result, these same mistakes could still be being made over and over again in patient care. People will continue to suffer unnecessary harm when safeguarding measures could, and should, have been put in place to protect them.

Mistakes Will be Made but Some Can Have Serious Consequences

As a case widely reported in the media demonstrated, sometimes a simple error can have catastrophic consequences. Frank Hibbard was in his mid-50s when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Following his diagnosis he had surgery to remove his prostate in 2001. Frank recovered from the surgery, but what no one realised was that surgeons had accidentally left an 8cm long piece of gauze inside his pelvis during the procedure.

The forgotten gauze went undetected for 13 years. A large mass formed around the gauze and eventually a soft tissue cancer developed around the mass. The gauze was finally discovered in 2014 and Frank’s soft tissue cancer was diagnosed, but by this time it was too late. The cancer was already too advanced and Frank died just two months later, aged 69.

What is a Medical Negligence Claim?

A medical negligence claim can only be brought when a patient has suffered avoidable harm at the hands of a medical practitioner. A certain amount of human error is inevitable and this should be acknowledged. However, it’s important that mistakes are not brushed over but instead that lessons are learnt from these mistakes and that measures are put in place to prevent them from being made again.

Following hundreds of other instances of foreign objects being left inside patients, some of those patients decided to bring medical negligence claims. The NHS chose to address this and introduced a Surgical Safety Checklist in 2009, which called for all instruments and swabs to be counted at the start of the procedure and then again at the end. They have seen an 86% reduction in foreign objects being left inside patients since this checklist was introduced.

Why Make a Claim?

For every case where a foreign object is left inside a patient after surgery, there will need to be at least one follow up operation to remove the object. So, if foreign objects are left inside patients after 100 operations, a further 100 operations at least will then need to be funded and resourced by healthcare providers as a result. This is after a considerable amount of time will have already been spent investigating and diagnosing the problem. Clearly the cost of dealing with these errors is colossal.

By not bringing a claim, patients who have suffered short or long term effects as a result of medical negligence will not have received any compensation for the harm that they have suffered. The purpose of compensation is to put the injured person back in the position they would have been in had the negligence not taken place. This takes into account the losses suffered by the victim, including financial losses. So by choosing not to claim compensation, the injured person will not receive the financial help that is intended to try to help make things right and minimise the impact that the incident has had on their life.

Empowering Patients to Improve Patient Safety

Only you can decide whether making a claim is the right choice for you. However, it is widely recognised that much can be learnt from studying successful medical negligence claims.

In America, since around 1990 Anaesthetic and Obstetric societies have reviewed data from concluded medical negligence claims to identify common errors and to devise risk reduction strategies. The societies then develop patient safety and treatment guidelines to address these common claims. Once the safety measures have been introduced, the number of these types of medical negligence claims reduces significantly.

In England, there are associated bodies set up to manage claims on behalf of healthcare providers (for the NHS this is NHS Resolution). They then share learnings from these claims with the healthcare provider, to support improvements in patient safety. They also publish analyses of patterns and reports on claims.

A report was published2 on Stillbirth Claims designed to assist healthcare providers to improve safety - in particular with regards to health professionals responsible for the care of women and their babies. This report was based on lessons learnt from medical negligence claims brought by the affected families.

Bringing a Medical Negligence Claim

At Co-op, we initially help the affected patient to process their complaint through the healthcare provider’s complaints procedure. We then investigate their treatment by going through the medical records, seeking advice from independent medical experts where necessary. If our initial investigation indicates that a mistake has been made, we share the outcome of this investigation with the relevant associated body who will manage the claim.

If they agree that a mistake has been made, we will work with them to agree what impact this mistake has had on the affected person’s life and wellbeing. We can then agree an appropriate amount of compensation to be paid to the affected individual to help them, as far as is possible, to minimise the impact of this mistake.

1 Figures obtained from NHS National Reporting and Learning System

2 Report published by NHS Resolution

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