More patients are claiming compensation against family doctors for medical negligence, according to information provided by the Medical Defence Union; the organisation which indemnifies most GPs. The bulk of the errors, some 60% are for wrong, late or missed diagnoses.
The figures are surprising given that the number of medical negligence claims has not increased over the last 10 years despite the widely believed myth of the ‘compensation culture’. There are probably a number of factors involved here.
One is that people no longer have the close relationship with their family doctor that their parents enjoyed. They may see one GP at one visit but someone different the next time. GPs get to know their patients less well now. Patients also may also be less deferential; they expect more and no longer think a GP can do no wrong. The truth is that the quality of health care varies from practice to practice. Some are better than others.
But another factor is probably the sheer pressure on GPs to save costs by not making referrals. It is still the case that cancer patients in Britain are investigated later than fellow patients in our European neighbours. With the changes being made to our health service the problem will only get worse.
The quality of care patients get from their GPs is generally excellent. I remember visiting one seriously ill client, sadly dying of cancer after a hospital error; to discuss his claim for compensation. The GP called whilst I was there and spent a whole hour with him whilst I chatted to his wife in the kitchen. However my colleagues and I speak daily to patients who have been injured as a result of negligent care by a GP. These are not people who are quick to seek legal advice but people who have suffered real harm from avoidable medical mistakes.
The statistics from the Medical Defence Union are therefore disappointing because they suggest there may be a growing problem in the quality of our GP care. My fear is that things will only get worse.
Paul Sankey is a Clinical and Medical Negligence Solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in London.
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