Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

£70m in payouts for medical blunders: The hidden burden on overstretched health budgets

Almost £70m has been paid out in compensation for major medical blunders in just over four years. Picture posed
Almost £70m has been paid out in compensation for major medical blunders in just over four years. Picture posed
Health committee member Jim Wells
Health committee member Kieran McCarthy

Almost £70m has been paid out in compensation for major medical blunders in just over four years – placing further stress on an already stretched health budget.

Several of the highest payouts made in recent years are understood to relate to negligence by medical staff during childbirth, resulting in brain injuries and lifelong disabilities for the children.

The number of negligence claims approved and the monies awarded are increasing each year, information obtained by the Belfast Telegraph under Freedom of Information has shown.

The Department of Health statistics show that from 2010/11 to date 58 clinical negligence cases were approved – at a cost to the public purse of almost £70m.

They also reveal:

  • Within the past four months alone more than £6m has been awarded to three claimants for medical negligence.
  • The number of negligence cases being approved by the Department of Health continues to increase annually.
  • In 2010/11 nine cases were approved and £13m was paid out. By last year the total had soared to more than £22m for 18 cases.
  • The largest single payment made since 2010/11 was £4.12m. In just over four years more than £1m compensation was awarded in 20 cases.

Due to the increase, Health Minister Edwin Poots was last year forced to request additional funding to help pay some of the claims.

Three of those payouts involve poor care provided to three women during labour, resulting in their new-borns suffering from brain damage and other serious medical conditions.

In one case the woman's labour was not managed properly and a failure to initiate delivery sooner resulted in serious, long term brain damage for the child.

Another child was born with acute and profound brain injury after the midwives failed to monitor the labour properly and failed to recognise foetal distress. The baby was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck three times.

Another child was left with severe cerebral palsy affecting all four limbs, and severe learning difficulties due to oxygen deprivation.

Stormont Health Committee member Kieran McCarthy said he fears that the increasing amount of negligence cases is the result of too much pressure on consultants, doctors and nurses because of health service cuts.

"Is there a possibility that they are trying to cut too much and that is resulting in more medical mistakes? We really need to look at this to see if that is indeed the case," said Mr McCarthy.

However, DUP Health Committee member Jim Wells said the increase was down to greater efficiency within the department to process the cases and more awareness among the public about their rights.

He warned that the cost of clinical negligence was adding to "the gathering storm clouds threatening the health service."

"If someone's life has been affected by a bad decision that has to be addressed. But this is yet another pressure that is coming on top of what is going on in health," the MLA said.

Mr Wells added: "The storm clouds are gathering. Health has huge problems. This is one of a whole raft of issues. If we don't get a proper budget then the health service will face a lot of difficulties."

The Department of Health did not immediately respond to the Belfast Telegraph's invitation to comment last night.

Mistakes that led to claims

Case 1: A new born baby was left with serious brain injuries after medical staff failed to manage the mother's labour appropriately. During the labour staff did not properly interpret the foetal heart rate and therefore failed to intervene to initiate delivery in time to prevent oxygen deprivation.

Case 2: Medical staff failed to adequately monitor the foetal heart rate during each stage of a woman's labour. They also failed to arrange continuous foetal heart monitoring. Failure to recognise foetal distress and take timely action to deliver the infant resulted in acute and profound brain damage. The baby girl was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck three times. If the foetal heart monitoring had been done to a proper standard, midwives would have realised there was intermittent cord occlusion towards the end of the first stage of labour.

Case 3: A child with Down's Syndrome was left with severe cerebral palsy affecting all four limbs and with severe learning difficulties after suffering from oxygen deprivation.

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