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Monday, 30 June 2014

Doctors and Cancer Treatment - naming, shaming and missing the point

A failure to diagnose cancer can have catastrophic consequences.

The most tragic case that I am currently handling relates to a woman in her 30s whose bladder cancer was missed despite numerous attendances at both her GP surgery and her local hospital. She died on Good Friday last year leaving 2 young children –

I commented at the time that in all of my years in practice I had rarely come across a case that made me more angry and upset. We all feel the same when we come across these avoidable tragedies. As a lawyer I want to do all I can to ensure that the family get justice. But as a society we also want to do all we can to ensure that it never happens again.

The Ministry of Health had acknowledged the problem of failed cancer diagnoses. According to the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the answer is to name and shame doctors who are at fault. There is also talk of ranking doctors and hospitals by reference to the speed of diagnosis –

This move is likely to achieve little or nothing. In fact it is likely to make matters worse. We all know what will happen. We have seen it with most ‘league tables’. Doctors will be forced to concentrate on improving their stats. So there will be a huge rise in referrals to clinics that are already under huge pressure. There will, of course, be no corresponding rise in funding. The Chair of the Commons Health Select Committee, a conservative MP says –

"I don't want to see any reduction in services. I would like to see further improvements and that will require an increase in funding."

This is the real answer. Adding further pressure to the medical profession is not an answer. It might provide populist headlines but it will not save lives.

It is extremely frustrating to hear these statements from a government which has made it far more difficult for victims to pursue cases for justice. In April 2013 Legal Aid was abolished for almost all Clinical Negligence cases. So victims have to find a lawyer who will pursue a case on a no win no fee basis; which normally involves that lawyer having to bankroll the expenses of the case that can run into thousands. This is already pressurising some law firms to significantly reduce their intake of cases. Some will have to leave the market altogether. And those very lawyers are then attacked by the medial for feeding the mythical compensation culture –

The rhetoric is always that ‘times are tough’ and that ‘we are all in it together’. But these tragic cases which devastate peoples lives should be a priority – certainly as against the cost of nuclear submarines! The government needs to ensure that surgeries and clinics are properly funded. They cannot simply starve them of resources and then blame them when things go wrong.

Politicians seem more concerned about headlines. Naming and shaming will sell newspapers but at what cost?

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