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At the heart of general practice since 1960

Retired GP faced with legal claim after 40 years as cases jump 15%

Medical defence experts have recorded a 15% rise in the number of cases against doctors during 2012 – including one involving an allegation that a GP did not refer a patient quickly enough for a caesarean more than 40 years ago.

The rise recorded by the Medical Defence Union represents a continuing upsurge in complaints about doctors, following a 17% rise in the number of cases filed in 2011.

The figures are contained the MDU Reports and Accounts 2012 document published today. The medical defence body blamed the rise on patients becoming more likely to complain and have higher expectations regarding health care.

One case involved a retired GP who received a claim more than 40 years after seeing a woman on a GP-led maternity unit he worked on in the 1960s. It was alleged that the GP should have referred the woman more quickly to a specialist unit for a caesarean, to avoid the baby being born with brain damage. The GP successfully defended the case.

Increase in 2012 partly reflects legal changes that reduced the amount lawyers were able to charge for negligence claims from April 1 2013. There was a rush of cases being processed before this date, so that the lawyers could claim the higher fees, said the MDU.

More than 70% of claims were successfully defended, however.

MDU chief executive Christine Tomkins said: ‘There are no indications that the current medico-legal position, where doctors are subject to rising complaints and claims in a highly regulated environment, will ease, even though, looking at the GMC fitness to practise finding it is clear there is no evidence that clinical standards are slipping.

‘It is difficult to identify what lies behind the increase in complaints, but the reasons are likely to be economic and societal.’

Readers' comments (14)

  • Research in the US has consistently shown that doctors who demonstrate good communications skills and apologise quickly for errors are less likely to be litigated against for malpractice. In the UK the same is true but ethnic minority doctors are more likely to be litigated against. The rise in complaints and litigation is more complex. A common misconception is that this is encouraged by unscrupulous no win no fee lawyers and patients and families with an exaggerated sense of entitlement and under-developed understanding of the complexities and uncertainties faced by clinicians. Such people do exist, but I suspect that the truth is slightly more complex. First of all many patients and caregivers actually do have good grounds to feel aggrieved and thus to complain. Nevertheless, any more people feel aggrieved than actually complain or litigate: that is an important lesson of the Francis and Keogh reports. In primary care, an important factor is the declining significance of the doctor-patient relationship, and the diminution of mutual regard and trust that follows from this. At the same time, better educated and more policy aware patients are beginning to ask whether GPs have a financial interest in clinical decisions about their care, and after the OOH debacle, whether they are interested in them at all. After all, only the unemployed and retired are able to adjust their diaries to secure continuity of care. These factors reduce sympathy for clinicians, and undermine confidence in GPs claims that they know their patients and are able to determine their best interests.

    In this environment, the conditions for complaints and litigation - poor communication,fragmented relationships, diminishing trust, and lack of confidence - are easily encountered by patients and caregivers. In both primary and secondary care, people may see formal complaints and litigation as the only mechanism by which they can actually have an impact on clinicians' behaviour.

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  • It's time the government put a stop to this. The only real winners are the lawyers. There needs to be a time limit on claims - perhaps 4yrs, the same as tax. This would be fair and protect against vexatious litigants to some extent.

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  • Very few other professions face this magnitude of enduring risk. GP pay urgently needs to rise to reflect the realities of working in the modern day NHS.

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  • As a full time GP i'm paying close to £800 per month in medical protection payments and its going up every year.So the way i look at it is why worry make full use of it!

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  • Persuit of speculative claims like that above do not reflect well on the legal profession which just looks ugly. Going to court over something that happened 40years ago is absurd, there are simply too many confounding factors to reach a reliable conclusion. If such claims are allowed to be brought they will cause significant damage to the NHS and we all stand to loose. Why our government let it continue is anybodys guess unless it is part of the masterplan to privatize the whole thing.

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  • It sits somewhere between scary and ridiculous that ten years into your retirement something like this can rear itself. Why would anyone intelligent want to become a doctor anymore?

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  • The other issue is that it feels like the blame culture seems to being encouraged by the government who are afraid to stand up to the public expectations in case they lose votes.
    The problem with all of this is it makes doctors feel more defensive and that we are damned if we do and damned if we don't. Unfortunately this can lead doctors working in overcautious and avoidant ways, more part-timers and locums.
    Unfortunately it all seems to fit in with fragmentation process and denationalisation of the NHS.

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  • The government is reluctant to act because it itself is consituted mainly by lawyers!Just look at the ratio of MP-ex lawyers to MP-ex doctors.

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  • Perhaps there should be more serious consequences for those who bring spurious claims to court?

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  • I am amazed that the MDU does not have safe working- in hours [ continuous, weekly etc] done by doctors and numbers seen [ day, week]. As the silver storm of old age is here and consultation rates have doubled in 12 years. We work harder and harder, more and more hours, more mistakes from over work, burn out depression.
    We need, most URGENTLY, safety levels of work.
    BMA, GMC,MDU when can we see guidelines on this ignored elephant of the NHS - staff / patient ratios.

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