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As the NSHLA announces its new name, Mark Bowman hopes for a change in attitude

Mark Bowman
23/03/2017

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced yesterday that the legal department of the NHS is changing its name from the formal-sounding NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA) to the warmer and cuddlier 'NHS Resolution'.

According to Mr Hunt, this rebranding, which in my mind makes it sound like a primary school teacher mediating a playground squabble,  is essential to the complete overhaul in the way the NHS handles the tragedy of birth injury cases.

I've criticised previously the way the NHSLA drags out for years clear-cut cases of negligence in birth injury, compounding the stress on parents and needlessly racking up the costs of litigation. So Mr Hunt's promise of a radical refocusing from simply defending NHS litigation claims to early settlement should be a good thing.

In pretty much every birth injury case I've been involved in, the torment for parents is not knowing what went wrong that caused their baby to face serious disability, tied up with the excruciating pain of guilt – if only we'd done something differently playing over and over in their heads.

The average length of time between an incident occurring and an award for compensation is eleven and a half years. This is because the court has to wait to hear a clear indication of the injured child’s prognosis to be able decide on how much compensation is needed to improve as far as possible the family's quality of life. And whatever the legal department calls itself, this won't change.

But what can, and must, change is the time it takes for the NHS trust involved to sit down with the parents, explain the mistakes that were made, to apologise and to promise wholeheartedly to do everything in its power to stop something similar ever happening again to another family. This is also true of neo-natal death. Only when parents receive this type of honest discussion can they hope to rebuild their lives to any degree.

According to Mr Hunt, these new plans are part of the Department of Health's determination to make the NHS the world's largest learning organisation, so that when something goes wrong, lessons are learned quickly, shared, and patient care is improved.

All good to hear. But I can't help feeling that the DoH is starting in the wrong place. Yes, it's essential to understand that mistakes happen, be honest when they do and to follow up with improvements. But wouldn't it make more sense, rather than emphasising the need to learn after a mistake, to reduce the number of mistakes being made in the first place?

Who knows what this type of rebranding will cost, from letter heads to logos, but I might suggest that to cut down on mistakes, and the subsequent need to learn, the first thing to do is to properly fund labour wards so that midwives, nurses and doctors are not stretched to breaking point, reliant on equipment that too often lets them down, and are given enough fully-staffed operating suites to keep mothers and babies safe.

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