24 June 2013
How the NHS constitution can bring about real improvements
In my capacity as a trustee of Pain UK, I was invited to attend a recent all-party parliamentary committee session on the NHS constitution. This was the final evidence session, which considered the impact of the constitution across the healthcare spectrum.
In both my charity work and my professional role as a personal injury solicitor, I am a strong supporter of the NHS constitution, which promotes the rights of patients and NHS staff, as well as the values of the NHS. But I believe there is little understanding of its true remit and applicability.
My experience of the committee made me consider the broader impact of the significant changes implemented since 1 April. The new constitution comes at a time of transition across an ever-changing societal landscape, with the Health and Social Care Act, welfare changes and, of course, civil justice reforms. The real danger, despite the good intentions underpinning the constitution, is that too many people may fall victim to the fog of confusion regarding its ethos and main purpose.
Sadly, in recent years trust in our traditional institutions – in the medical, legal and political sectors – has been seriously eroded. In the medical profession we have seen the Francis report on Mid-Staffordshire hospital. In the legal profession we have witnessed an increasingly anti-claimant agenda, where genuine victims seeking legal redress fall victim to salacious headlines which often demonise the legal claims process.
That latter perception needs to change if we are to have any chance of providing victims of accidents who suffer life-changing injuries with the best possible representation to secure appropriate damages and support in respect of their long-term care and rehabilitative needs.
In a climate of austerity and negative media reporting, an inevitable consequence of injured claimants seeking legal redress will be to limit their ability to seek much-needed funds for early treatment intervention. As Personal Injury Lawyers, we are often faced with claimants suffering from unexplained medical symptoms as a consequence of a trauma-based injury.
It is now widely recognised that those suffering entrenched pain for a prolonged period are most likely to develop depression, pain disorders and suffer increased social isolation. This often results in the loss of employment and long-term reliance on our struggling NHS. Cases such as Rachel Lee v Brake Brothers Ltd  demonstrate that this unfortunate scenario is not limited to catastrophic injuries.
There must, therefore, be a cultural change, where patients and the medical profession work in collaboration to bring about sustained long-term improvements. This also involves support from the wider community, not least the legal profession. In many cases, where an insurer represents the party responsible for the injury, the at-fault insurer has a responsibility to pay for the victim’s rehabilitative treatment and to refund hospital charges.
Put simply, there is a lack of awareness of the Rehabilitation Code and the benefits of the Legal Injury Pathway. This can, for example, fund treatment facilitating cost savings, filter out high-cost patients leading to increased space and resources, and provide early advice and support on ancillary matters, ensuring a supported, integrated recovery.
My hope for the new NHS constitution is that it is not simply used for sound bites and impressive rhetoric, but is regarded as a document with real substance, which brings about improvements and closer collaboration between patients and NHS staff. The legal profession, meanwhile, faces the great challenge of ensuring that genuine victims of accidents are not dissuaded from seeking legal recourse by the tide of anti-claimant media campaigns.