How the NHS covers up fatal blunders

NHS hospitals are covering up fatal blunders by doctors and issuing misleading information about accidents to patients’ families.

Deaths are sometimes blamed on natural causes or untreatable injury, when in fact patients have suffered a drug overdose, a surgical error or misdiagnosis.

New laws came into force last month requiring hospitals to send anonymous reports of mistakes to a central database. Failure to comply will lead to prosecution. However, the new reporting system by the Care Quality Commission, the health watchdog, has angered patients’ groups because it does not require doctors to share the information with victims or bereaved relatives.

Medical negligence lawyers say they have dealt with cases in which hospitals have tried to cover up errors by changing or destroying records.

“We see many instances of alterations of handwritten medical records, seemingly in an attempt to mislead,” said Clair Hemming, a solicitor from Exeter. “You get additional wording squeezed in and no proper explanations offered.”

Although many millions of successful procedures are carried out annually, Department of Health statistics indicate that about 500,000 patients a year are accidentally harmed in NHS hospitals. Only 30,000 of these incidents lead to complaints and only 6,000 to litigation.

“The NHS Litigation Authority says it faces liabilities of £10 billion based on reports it receives from hospitals of accidents where people would have the right to compensation,” said Peter Walsh, chief executive of the charity Action for Victims of Medical Accidents. “Yet only £870m, including costs, was paid out last year, suggesting very large numbers of patients must have no idea they are entitled to compensation.”

Bowen, 34, of Cricklade, Wiltshire, has been asked to speak at a forthcoming conference by the National Patient Safety Agency (NPSA). She will talk about the failure of hospitals to come clean when tragedies occur.

Her daughter had been due to undergo a serious, but routine, operation to remove her spleen because of an inherited blood disorder. The same procedure had been done successfully on her brother, who had a similar condition.

“You are in so much pain and despair after the death of a child that you don’t have the strength to fight a hospital, but that’s what we had to do,” Bowen said. “A year after Beth died we were still having meetings with the hospital and they kept changing their story.”

Bowen believes the strain led to her husband, Richard, 31, a design engineer, having a fatal heart attack, leaving her to raise her children, Will, 6, and James, 4, on her own.

Managers at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, where Bethany died almost four years ago, have acknowledged the error that killed her and paid £10,000 compensation. The hospital is now taking up Bowen’s suggestion to train doctors to communicate better with patients.

Next month Great Western hospital in Swindon is expected to face a £20,000 fine after claiming that Mayra Cabrera, 30, had died from natural causes an hour after giving birth.

In fact her heart stopped because she was injected with bupivacaine, an anaesthetic infusion that was mistaken for saline solution. Her husband, Arnel, discovered the truth 14 months later. Last week the hospital insisted the death had not been covered up because the police and coroner were informed within 24 hours, although it conceded the husband knew nothing of the police inquiry.

Bupivacaine continues to be involved in hundreds of medical accidents. Between June 2006 and the end of February 2010, 453 anonymous cases were reported under the voluntary NPSA system; 22 of those cases caused “permanent harm”.

There is opposition, however, to making doctors legally obliged to own up to mistakes. “They would fear being targeted with disproportionate blame and anger,” said Stephanie Bown, policy director at the Medical Protection Society. “We want a culture of openness, but that sort of law would just drive mistakes further underground.”


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