Fix NHS claims problem at the source

NHS negligence payouts can be good value but investment in the services would be a better outcome

Helen Goatley

This month 14-year-old Charlie Scott was awarded £7.1m in damages from the Royal Bournemouth Hospital Trust – compensation for mistakes made during his mother’s labour that left Charlie with cerebral palsy.

On Radio 4’s Today programme on 11 January, Christine Tomkins, chief executive of the Medical Defence Union, claimed that the claims system has gone wrong. She argued that the value of personal injury claims has become an unsustainable burden on a struggling NHS.

Tomkins accepted that patients need care and deserve compensation for negligence, but argued that the present rules disregard services that can be provided by the NHS.

She objected to the basis of costing future care on the assumption that it will be provided privately, resulting in a series of “one-man institutions” that presumably she felt would not be a cost-effective way of providing much-needed care.

The compensation figure in this case needs to be understood in context, however. £7.1m is not a vast sum when compared with the cost to the public purse of a long disabled life.

If Charlie was to live another 70 years I wonder what the cost to the NHS, social services, the education budget and state benefits would be – would it really be that much less? Indeed, might there not even be a saving if the quality care provided avoids serious problems that could occur were he not given a personalised care regime – say, he choked on his food, developed pneumonia or fell awkwardly – resulting in costly in-patient hospital stays?

This sum will allow Charlie to live as normal a life as possible, with as much control as possible over what happens to him.

The Department of Work and Pensions has, for some years, supported a policy of personal budgets, allowing disabled people the freedom to choose and pay their own carers, and select their own resources using public money.

This freedom of choice is of enormous importance, particularly when your freedom to do so much has been taken away by an act of negligence.

Charlie’s money will also be spent in the local economy, providing jobs for his carers (and income tax for HMRC) and purchasing whatever equipment he needs.

Those with compensation packages have, for a long time, funded innovations in technology for disabled people ranging from prosthetic limbs to wheelchairs and adapted vehicles.

Tomkins may well regret such a large amount of money coming out of the NHS budget, but it would be much better spent avoiding mistakes in the first place.

St George’s Healthcare Trust in South West London recently announced that it is investing £2m to bring its numbers up to a ratio of one midwife to every 27 women registered, to boost the quality of the service. Money well spent, I would have thought.

Surely, we should be investing more to prevent negligence cases such as Charlie’s happening rather than querying one young man’s right to the best that can be afforded after he has been so badly let down.