Monday, 28 January 2013

Freedom of choice of medical care should not be forfeited

Two weeks ago Charlie Scott was awarded £7.1m in a case that took 14 years to resolve. The story made various nationals, including the Mail, Guardian and The Lawyer. Charlie's story is therefore reasonably well-known, but that doesn't make it any less heart-rending.

Mistakes by midwives when Charlie was born at The Royal Bournemouth Hospital left him with a serious form of cerebral palsy. He cannot walk, talk, sit up or drink without assistance.

Charlie was diagnosed with spastic quadriplegic hemiplegic athetoid cerebral palsy at six months. He will require lifelong care. Quite rightly, his mother commenced legal proceedings against the Royal Bournemouth Hospital Trust - which denied liability for 12 years. Two years ago, Mrs Scott's tenacious lawyers succeeded in proving clinical negligence. The result, now, is the award of £7.1m.

To many people, the award would sound fair, given both the backdrop and the very considerable cost of Charlie's future care. But on 11 January Christine Tomkins, the Chief Executive of the Medical Defence Union, appeared on Radio 4 and suggested that compensation payments of this kind were "unsustainable".

Citing figures from the NHS Litigation Authority - which put its total liability at £16.7 billion in 2011 - Ms Tomkins said: "That's an awful lot of taxpayers' money. And if you look at the rate of increase, in 2010 they paid out £863 million in compensation and in 2011 that figure was £1.2 billion. That is a 39% increase in a single year."

Ms Tomkins criticised rules dating back to the foundation of the health service in 1948, saying that their effect is that the NHS has to pay for the cost of severely damaged patients "on the basis that all the future care will be provided in the private, independent sector". With regrettable predictability, a number of people were quick to post comments in various media to the effect that it is an outrage that victims should be awarded such seemingly high damages.

This issue is complex. Prevention must be better than cure: negligence such as that which so badly disabled Charlie should not happen in the first place. But if it does, claims should be resolved as quickly as possible, and victims must have freedom of choice. They must be given the freedom to try to obtain the best possible care for the rest of their lives. Anything less strikes me as a travesty.