The government is to consult on a new ‘rapid resolution and redress’ scheme for victims of clinical negligence during maternity care.
In proposals announced this morning, health secretary Jeremy Hunt (pictured) said he wants to end the ‘blame culture’ when things go wrong in the NHS, which can inhibit transparency. He hopes a new, voluntary compensation scheme will act as an alternative to ‘costly’ legal processes.
‘Our NHS maternity staff do a fantastic job under huge pressure,’ said Hunt.
‘But even though we have made much progress, our stillbirth rates are still among the highest in Western Europe and many on the frontline say there is still too much of a blame culture when things go wrong – often caused by fear of litigation or worry about damage to reputation and careers.’
Hunt said the measures – yet to be published in full – will help trusts ensure courts are a ‘last resort not an automatic first step’.
The government says the RRR scheme could investigate and learn lessons from more than 500 incidents a year. In cases where harm was avoidable, this would offer ‘timely access’ to financial support without the current obligation on families to launch a formal legal process.
At present, families’ average wait for resolution of a case is 11.5 years.
It is over a year since the Department of Health said it would consult on fixed recoverable costs for clin neg claims, proposing a limit of £250,000. Nothing substantive has been issued so far in this regard.
Hunt also outlined plans today for a ‘safe space’ for medics to block the publication of information relating to safety inquiries.
He is proposing to create a statutory prohibition on the disclosure of material obtained during certain health service investigations, unless the High Court makes an order permitting disclosure, or in a limited number of other circumstances.
The health secretary says he wants to create an atmosphere where staff learn from their mistakes and to end the ‘culture of blaming’ that staff feel they are subjected to.
In a written statement to the Commons, Hunt said the safe space approach is ‘designed to improve patient safety standards over time, by enabling clinicians to discuss openly and honestly their experiences, including aspects of care that ought to be improved’.
Hunt said the proposed scheme, likely to be up and running from April 2017, would be based in part on the model used by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch.
The health secretary believes prohibiting the disclosure of material will provide a measure of ‘psychological safety’ to those involved in an investigation and allow them to speak freely.
Commenting, Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon stressed that any new system for the resolution of claims out of court 'must not deny families in these tragic cases the right to access specialist advice from a solicitor to help them get the compensation they are entitled to in law and which is desperately needed to cover the cost of care'. She welcomed a more open approach to learning from tragedies, but warned that limiting independent advice could prevent crucial lessons being learned.
Peter Walsh, chief executive of the charity Action against Medical Accidents, said the government plans to eradicate mistakes should be welcomed, but come with a ‘big health warning’.
He added: ‘We do not want people to feel pressurised into accepting something less than they need and deserve just to save the NHS money.’
Neil Sugarman, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, added: ‘It is critical that the right amount of compensation is made available to injured children to ensure they receive the care they desperately need.’