Any condition that requires hospital treatment is unpleasant and possibly distressing, whether it's a small problem needing minor procedures in the outpatient department or a serious illness or injury which necessitates prolonged stays in hospital and surgery. But, when the need arises, you have to put yourself in the hands of healthcare professionals and trust in them to diagnose and treat your injury or ailment to the high medical standards expected of them.
However, sometimes things go wrong and, when they do, the consequences of negligence can be serious, possibly life-changing and, in the worst cases, potentially fatal. We often hear that the NHS is short staffed and stretched to the limit with doctors and nurses working long hours and doing their best under difficult circumstances. But these are not excuses for letting clinical standards suffer. And it is not just in the NHS that negligence happens, private hospitals and practitioners also make mistakes.
In 2016/17 there were over 17,000 clinical negligence cases brought against the NHS with almost 56 percent resulting in the award of damages.
Duty of Care
All healthcare professionals, whether in the public or private sector, have a duty of care towards the patients in their care. The duty of care doesn't just apply to doctors and nursing staff, but also includes therapists, physios, ambulance staff and laboratory workers among others.
Among their duties, they must ensure their skills and knowledge are current, know what needs to be done to provide a safe service, keep accurate records, comply with health and safety regulations and provide a service of the expected quality based on their skills and responsibilities.
Work should not be delegated to someone else unless they are clearly equally competent to perform the work. Where there are any concerns that standards may not be met, an appropriate person should be notified. Lack of resources, equipment or competent staff is no excuse for providing unsafe treatment.
Types of Medical Negligence
Medical negligence can come in many forms and even the smallest error by medical staff could have devastating and long-lasting effects for the patient. Negligence can apply to any procedure, whether it's dental, a routine check-up, invasive surgery or in A&E. Following are some of the common types of clinical negligence.
Misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis
When a patient is admitted to hospital, it is crucial to their medical care to diagnose the symptoms. But that is not always straightforward as some symptoms can indicate more than one possible cause, so it can involve a process of elimination.
However, if a doctor were to jump to a conclusion without exhaustive tests they could misdiagnose the problem and recommend the wrong treatment. While in many cases it may be quickly noticed and rectified with different medication or procedures, in other cases it could be a fatal error.
Some examples of misdiagnoses with potentially serious or fatal consequences could be failing to diagnose cancer, a stroke or the symptoms of an imminent heart attack, failing to recognise the symptoms of a DVT or embolism, meningitis, appendicitis or misdiagnosing diabetes.
Some conditions respond to treatment when caught early enough, but a delay in the diagnosis can lead to the illness worsening to a stage where it cannot be reversed or it impacts on the life of the patient. Illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and stroke need to be recognised and treated quickly. Conditions like appendicitis or internal injuries which require urgent surgery can be fatal if the diagnosis is delayed.
Any surgical procedure carries inherent risks, but errors made during surgery can have catastrophic results for the patient.
The biggest risk in an operating theatre is infection. The failure of any of the medical team to ensure that they and any instruments used are sterile can result in serious infection or even sepsis which can prove fatal.
The surgeon unintentionally cutting a major blood vessel can cause an uncontrolled bleed. Similarly, perforating an organ can lead to the leaking of fluids into a cavity causing infection, or the organ could fail.
Performing surgery on the wrong site can be caused by miscommunication or a mix up in the patient's records. There have been cases where patients have had the wrong limbs amputated resulting in the loss of both. In other instances, a wrong kidney has been removed leaving the patient with a lifetime of dialysis.
It is not uncommon for objects to be left inside patients after surgery. This could be anything from a piece of gauze to a surgical instrument and it requires further surgery to remove the object. If it goes unnoticed for a long time it can cause serious infection.
Medical negligence during childbirth
During labour and childbirth, the delivery room is a hectic place and it can be traumatic for both the mother and baby, especially if there are complications.
During a difficult birth, the medical staff may have to assist the extraction of the child by using forceps. The misuse or negligent use of instruments on the baby's head can cause permanent brain damage.
Sometimes, because of complications, the doctor might have to make the decision to perform a caesarean delivery. Failing to make that decision, or not making it in time can be dangerous for the mother and child.
When Should You Claim for Hospital Negligence?
There are many other types of clinical negligence and if you feel that you or a family member has suffered from malpractice, you may be able to pursue a claim for compensation. In most cases you must initiate your legal claim within three years of the incident.
The claims process is not always straightforward and it can be stressful, so you should consult a legal expert who specialises in clinical negligence claims. More advice on what you need to consider can be found at LegalHelpline.co.uk. Your appointed legal expert will require as many details as possible, so keep records of any treatment, hospital visits, second opinions of doctors, all related out of pocket expenses and loss of earnings. The amount of compensation you receive will be dependant on the exact circumstances of your case.