NHS payouts: The cost of medical negligence in the region

The bill for all types of medical negligence claims in England, including damages and legal fees, has risen four-fold in 10 years.
The bill for all types of medical negligence claims in England, including damages and legal fees, has risen four-fold in 10 years.

Medical negligence payouts have cost Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust almost £32million in the past five years, although it has avoided the eye-watering bills seen elsewhere in the country.

New analysis shows that NHS medical blunders dating back more than two decades are still costing tens of millions of pounds a year in damages. In the past five years, the Department of Health has paid out £152million, including legal fees, to victims of mistakes made before April 1995 in England.

Hospital failings during childbirth account for 71 per cent of this figure and experts have cautioned that these same mistakes are still being repeated in labour wards today.

It comes as an inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee in November warned that pressures on the NHS could see the litigation bill 'spiralling out of control without effective action'.

The payouts for historical incidents were made under NHS Resolution's (formerly the NHS Litigation Authority) Existing Liabilities Scheme (ELS), which is centrally funded by the Department of Health and covers clinical claims against NHS organisations where the incident took place before April 1, 1995. While one would expect these payouts to fall over time, they actually rose by 13 per cent last year, to £27.7million.

However, between 2012 and 2017, there were no pre-April 1995 historical payouts for Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, which is responsible for hospitals in Northumberland and North Tyneside; Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, which provides mental health, learning disability and neurological care services across the region; North East Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust; or Northumberland Care Trust, a primary care trust which was abolished in April 2013.

Figures of between of £4.5million and £.8.5million were seen at the top 10 trusts whose mistakes before 1995 cost the most over the past five years.

All medical negligence claims – the cost of general claims plus those for historical incidents – cost the NHS £6.2billion from 2012 to 2017, with more than a third of the total (£2.1billion) going on legal fees. In 2016-17, the overall cost rose to a five-year high of £1.6billion.

The payouts for non-historical incidents fall under the Clinical Negligence Scheme for Trusts (CNST), which is centrally funded by NHS Resolution.

The £31.8million figure for Northumbria Healthcare over the past five years, including a high of £11.6million in 2016-17, only sees it ranked 89th in England. The top 10 saw total figures of between £81million and a mammoth £123million.

The total cost for Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust from 2012 to 2017 was £1.2million (222nd in England), while the figure was £570,000 for the North East Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (236th). The payout for Northumberland Care Trust during the one year which it existed during this period was just £13,000.

The Department of Health and NHS Resolution have put forward several measures to cut medical negligence costs in England, including a plan to cap the fees that legal firms can recoup from the taxpayer when they win low-value cases, a plan to resolve more medical negligence cases before they go to court, a proposal to introduce a voluntary alternative compensation scheme for infants who have suffered avoidable brain injury at birth and cash incentives for trusts which take steps to make maternity services safer.

A statement from NHS Resolution said: "Incidents in maternity account for 10 per cent of the number of claims we receive each year, but 50 per cent of the expected cost of the claims. This is because of the very high cost of cases which tragically involve brain damage at birth where provision must be made for life-long and complex care needs."

A Department of Health spokesman added: "Our relentless drive to improve patient safety, including an ambition to halve the rates of neonatal deaths, stillbirths, maternal deaths and brain injuries caused during or shortly after labour by 2025, will help to reduce traumatic and costly safety failings in the NHS and ensure better protection for patients.

"We're ensuring taxpayers' money is spent effectively by taking action against law firms creaming off excessive legal costs that dwarf the damages recovered – but we're also clear we want to ensure patients continue to access justice at a reasonable cost."