The UK’s healthcare industry is a world-leading one, responsible as it is for world-leading developments in medical technology and healthcare breakthroughs. The National Health Service – which describes the vast majority of citizen interactions with healthcare in the UK – is itself a world-leading institution, with an accessibility model that demonstrates the importance and effectiveness of universal healthcare.
However, things have changed in recent years. Administrative troubles and a once-in-a-lifetime public health catastrophe, underscored by ten-plus years of underfunding, have seen to a marked decline in the quality of NHS care. For an institution on its knees, every penny counts. But when a significant portion of those pennies are increasingly being diverted to medical negligence costs, the situation appears all the starker. What exactly is medical negligence, and what does it cost the NHS?
What is Medical Negligence?
Medical negligence is a complex and niche corner of civil law, existing within personal injury and institutional liability spheres. Medical negligence claims address specific instances wherein a victim has suffered due to poor or negligent care at the hands of a healthcare profession or institution.
Such claims are based around the concept of ‘duty of care’, which describes a business or institution’s duty to its customers or patients. The concept entered into common law via an historic claim by a victim who suffered grievous illness at the hands of a contaminated soft drink; the principle soon carried over into and beyond healthcare.
The NHS and Medical Negligence Claims
No healthcare institutions are immune to the potential for civil action through negligence claims, and the NHS is no different. Indeed, the NHS has an independent organisation responsible for the management of civil claims, called NHS Resolution.
According to data shared by NHS Resolution, the total value of payments made in 2020-21 through clinical negligence settlements and court cases reached well over £2 billion. But this figure pales in comparison to the amount of money NHS Resolution is required to set aside for potential negligence costs – with the total value of claims against the NHS reaching well over £80 billion.
The Future of Medical Negligence in the UK
These costs are, in a word, untenable for the NHS. While certain amounts of funding are ringfenced for the purpose of handling negligent care – and while those provisions are important to secure the ongoing safety of the slim minority of patients affected by negligent care – the figures are nonetheless troubling against a backdrop of funding trouble for the institution.
To help tackle the issue, the UK government has proposed a cap on legal costs relating to lower-value medical negligence cases in the UK. The cap would target the value of Fixed Recoverable Costs available to claim back after a successful case, saving a potential £500 million per year. With incidences of medical negligence linked to poor management and underfunding, though, there is a long road of reform to travel before the NHS can meaningfully tackle its potential costs.