By Simon Wilson, medical negligence expert and senior solicitor at Neil Hudgell Solicitors
When something goes wrong during medical care, the worst possible reaction of professionals such as doctors, nurses and midwives is to try and cover up their mistakes.
Of course, admitting to making an error which could have life-changing consequences for an individual will never be easy.
In fact, it will always undoubtedly be a hugely difficult moment for any medical professional to handle.
Let’s not forget, those in the medical professions go into theirs job because they want to use their skills to make a positive impact on peoples’ lives, and ultimately, make people better. Making such a mistake will be devastating.
However, a failure to admit mistakes only serves to cause further harm, firstly to the patient themselves, as the true picture of their care, and causes of resulting problems, could remain unknown and hinder further medical treatment.
But longer term, and on a wider scale, it can prevent thorough investigations into why such errors are made, how they can be addressed, and importantly prevented in the future, with key lessons learned and improvements made.
It is for those reasons that we at Hudgell Solicitors, as experts in handling claims involving medical negligence, welcome new guidelines for doctors, nurses and midwives across the UK on being honest and open with patients when things go wrong.
Known as the “duty of candour”, the new guidelines make clear that patients should expect a face-to-face apology.
It was introduced as a rule for NHS and private healthcare organisations to admit their mistakes candidly, and as soon as possible, in April, is now being applied to individual medics.
The guidance, drawn up by the General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council, applies to more than 950,000 doctors, nurses and midwives working in the UK.
It makes it clear staff should tell the patient as soon as possible when something has gone wrong, and what it might mean for their health. It also makes clear that patients or their families should receive a face-to-face apology.
The Francis Report into the scandal at Stafford Hospital, in which hundreds of patients suffered poor care and neglect, exposed how fears over damage to the reputation of the Mid Staffs Trust led to a lethal culture of silence and cover-up when mistakes were made.
It is something we still see too often in the many cases we handle.
Whilst we don’t suggest that ‘cover-ups’ are taking place and that doctors and NHS bodies are deliberately providing misleading information, we certainly see far too many cases where it is difficult to get full information and clarity over what exactly has happened, and what really went wrong.
Perhaps one of the most interesting points in the new guidance is that it even spells out words that a face-to-face apology might include, such as “I am sorry”.
This may seem a small issue to many – especially when mistakes can have a devastating impact on the quality of life for the individual affected – but we see in each and every case just how important an apology is.
The lack of an apology is often the issue which, long after a case has been settled and damages agreed, sits badly with the families we deal with.
Through our support, clients benefit from superb rehabilitation support and excellent compensation settlements, but without an apology – and that acceptance of mistakes being made – it always feels as though there has been little thought, consideration or sympathy. Families feel they have been paid off with no second thought.
With the Duty of Candour now running through healthcare, hopefully sympathy and understanding will be placed at the top of the agenda, ultimately leading to greater honesty, transparency, and standards in medical care across the UK.