Editor's Viewpoint: More money would ease NHS stresses
The public here is well aware of the pressures on the NHS. Lengthy waiting lists, missed target times to be seen by consultants and difficulty recruiting young doctors into general practice are just some of the visible signs of a service creaking at the seams.
But the British Medical Association annual conference in Belfast today will hear of another hidden problem. According to the association's Northern Ireland chair Dr Tom Black, some doctors are considering leaving the profession because of the fear of criminal prosecution if they make an error in the treatment of a patient.
Pressure on staff, lack of capacity in the service, system failure and human error are the most common reasons for errors in treatment and more than half of doctors surveyed said they feared being blamed for errors which were due to factors other than human error.
Mr Justice O'Hara, who conducted a 14-year inquiry into the deaths of five children from hyponatraemia, made scathing criticism of a culture of secrecy he found within the medical profession, saying facts had to be dragged out of witnesses, and in at least one case he was unable to ascertain for certain what went wrong or who was to blame. One of his main recommendations was that there should be a statutory duty of candour on both organisations and staff.
However, England and Scotland have already ruled out imposing such a duty on individuals, although it is accepted that such a duty should be imposed on organisations.
While the public would be fully behind Mr Justice O'Hara's recommendation, its unintended consequences could be serious either by the medical profession becoming more secretive or not reporting adverse incidents or by doctors leaving the profession or young men and women deciding it is not a career choice worth pursuing.
The public would back Dr Black's suggestion that the NHS needs greater investment, increasing capacity to deal with increased workloads and greater support for those working in what is a highly stressed environment without the additional worry of being prosecuted.
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Unless such problems are tackled the NHS, for so long the jewel in social policy in the UK, may continue to fall short of its potential with the obvious consequences for its patients.
The impasse at Stormont makes the situation in Northern Ireland even more acute.