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Rapid Response plans to help parents with catastrophically injured babies could backfire

Mark Bowman
18/10/2016
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt spoke on BBC Radio 4 Today programme this week about Government plans to ease the pain suffered by parents whose babies are injured at birth.

He said proposals, currently at the consultation stage, aim to speed up compensation payments to families so they can provide appropriate care to children born with cerebral palsy and other complications following mistakes by hospital staff. He said that waiting more than 11 years for a settlement, which is not unusual, is far too long.

Rapid Resolution scheme

The new Rapid Resolution and Redress scheme, which is voluntary, would fast-track compensation to parents by settling complaints more quickly. It would also allow medical staff to be more transparent about what went wrong and share lessons learnt with other hospitals.

Mr Hunt's comments that speedier resolution would help the NHS move away from the 'blame culture' that dogs the current system are part of an on-going Government push to persuade hospital trusts to be more transparent with patients when things go wrong. Earlier this month, Helen Vernon, chief executive of the NHSLA, vowed to promote early transparency and saying 'sorry' in a bid to cut down on litigation costs in negligence cases.

In theory, any initiative to save the NHS money and resolve cases more quickly has to be a good thing, something I and Jamie Green have commented on before. But the concern of the medical negligence team here is that parents who, understandably, are in desperate need of help accept a package early that doesn't take into account the needs of their child as he or she grows up and develops.

Expert assessment

Part of the reason that birth injury claims take time is so that independent experts can properly assess a child's physical and mental capabilities over a certain period to attempt to estimate exactly what those needs might be as they mature.

This is a fine art, since a baby born with cerebral palsy can develop in many different ways, sometimes surprising us with amazing achievements, sometimes needing much more help than can be predicted at birth.

In every case, the benefit of therapies such as speech and language, physio and one-to-one care are essential to provide the best possible future for a child injured by other people's mistakes. That costs money, usually far beyond what parents can afford without recourse to litigation.

Without necessarily understanding the details, the public can be surprised at news that a family has been awarded ten or eleven million pounds by a court, as often results in cases we take on for our clients. But the reality is, spread over a life expectancy of more than 30 years, this sum breaks down into just enough to provide a decent quality of life for a child every day, for life.  

Mr Hunt said that parents would still be able to take their cases to court if they wanted to. What isn't clear is whether parents who accept early settlement will have recourse to apply for more funds when it becomes apparent what their child needs to thrive.

It would be all too easy for parents to accept a package that, at the time, sounds fantastic but which in reality is nowhere near enough as a child grows up.

Parental naivety

Certainly, early intervention should save the NHS money, but it could also take advantage of understandable naivety and cause future devastation for the families it's meant to be helping.

What would be far more beneficial to parents in these cases would be if the NHSLA were to admit liability earlier so that interim payments can be awarded and rehabilitation provided to the injured child throughout the course of the litigation.

This way, time can be taken to adequately compensate the injured child at the same time as they benefit from care and therapies that otherwise would not be available.

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