Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Lessons to learn in troubling NHS audit

Given the complexity of health problems facing doctors in hospitals it is no surprise that things can go wrong or mistakes are made, regrettable as both may be.

While the scale of the problem is concerning, with more than 3,300 claims of medical negligence lodged in Northern Ireland in the last five years, it must also be seen in context. Every year doctors in hospitals see around 2.7 million patients which shows that the service works in the vast majority of cases.

Yet the health service should take the Audit Office report very seriously, as it throws up some disturbing evidence. First of all, around one third of all claims in the last two years concerned women patients, particularly in the fields of obstetrics and gynaecology. Questions that immediately spring to mind include - why should the specialties account for such a high proportion of cases? Is this in line with UK averages for the specialties? Are any specific problems recurring?

Another area of concern is the length of time some cases take to reach a settlement. It is known medical negligence cases are slow moving, but allowing one case to drag on for 27 years, while 36 more remain outstanding after 15 years, seems wildly excessive. Not only have those who brought the cases had to suffer what they see as medical negligence, but they've also had a resolution of their cases denied to them for an intolerably long period. That is almost literally rubbing salt in a wound. As ever there are winners in these cases, frequently the lawyers, with legal costs and administrative costs accounting for more than one third of the £116m paid out in the last five years.

It is surely in the interests of all concerned, doctors, patients and the health service, to have cases resolved more speedily, albeit recognising the involved nature of many of the claims. And it is also clear from the Audit Office report that greater transparency and coordination is needed throughout the service in the province to identify trends and learn from past mistakes.

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