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Northern Ireland's £94m bill for medical negligence

By Jonathan Bell

The bill for ongoing medical negligence cases hit £94m in the last financial year, government statistics reveal.

A DUP MLA former health worker, said that figure - which represents a running total of costs for cases which have been ongoing for a number of years and remained live as of March 2017 - was "phenomenal".

Of that figure health trusts paid out £70m for damages and £24m in legal costs. Almost £30m was paid for cases closed during the past financial year, a decrease on previous years.

Obstetrics - that being care concerning pregnancy, child birth, after birth care and gynaecology - accounted for over half (£53m) of the amount paid out.

Between March 2016 and March 2017 health officials across Northern Ireland worked through 3,647 cases of alleged negligence throughout the year. Of those 667 were new cases reported that year, 246 cases were settled and 632 closed. Some 436 cases were closed without payment.

Almost 40% of all cases involved the Belfast Health Trust which the figures show came to a total of £32m for the year, a third of the total paid out so far. For completed cases it paid out £10m.

Medical negligence is defined as a breach of duty of care by members of the health trusts during the course of their employment which is either admitted or determined through a legal process.

Of the cases opened in the past year a minority were of incidents which happened before 1993 while the majority were of alleged negligence was said to have happened between 2011 and 2014. A quarter of all cases concerned cases of patients aged between 19 and 34.

On average, the report said, it took 2.6 years to complete a case.

At times trusts are ordered to made a payment during the course of proceedings in order to meet the immediate needs of the claimant. This totalled almost £50m last year with 26 orders made.

DUP MLA Paula Bradley, who worked as a social worker for 12 years, said mistakes were "inevitable" but there was a "blame culture" among the public.

"People have that right and so long as their complaint is genuine, they should," she said.

"This £94m is phenomenal. It is money that could be spent on so many vital services. As long as the trusts are learning from each individual mistake, that is the important thing.

"The staff are under immense pressure dealing with the toughest of cases, often having to make snap decisions, and for them no patient is the same.

"Also in the past obstetrics has been the hardest place to fill staff vacancies. If that was still the case it may explain why that area receives the most complaints."

The Patient Client Council, which represents people using the health service said: "When things go wrong its important people receive explanations, and the Patient and Client Council offers a confidential, independent and free complaints support service that can help people to make a complaint about any Health and Social Care service.

"Providing clinical or medical advice, or complaints support for cases undergoing legal processes falls outside the remit of the Patient and Client Council."

The Department of Health said: "The focus across HSC, at all times, is on providing safe and high quality care, and thus eliminating incidents which may give rise to such claims."

a spokesperson said the £94.1m figures referred to the amount which has been paid on each case, during the length of time that it has been open.

It includes the money spent on cases that may have been open for a number of years, as payments are made at different times whilst it continues.

It said the £28.5m paid out in 2016/17 is the amount paid out solely in a financial year.

The Belfast Trust was also asked for comment.

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