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What to do if medical treatment goes wrong

Emmalene Bushnell discusses the options available if medical treatment goes wrong and patients are left seriously injured

Posted on 05 September 2017

Thousands of people are successfully treated by our health services each year, but sometimes things go wrong leaving some patients seriously injured.

It is difficult to think about what you would do if it happened to you, because we all hope that it won’t, but in our experience many of those injured want answers to questions, lessons to be learnt, accountability, an apology and to be reimbursed for expenses they have incurred.

So how can you try to achieve all of that if something goes wrong?  There are a number of options available, which we have set out for you below.

Serious Incident Investigation

If a serious error occurs in hospital then the hospital should commence a Serious Incident Investigation (SII). The purpose of a SII is to ensure that serious incidents are identified correctly, investigated thoroughly and learned from to prevent the likelihood of similar incidents happening again.

As a patient you should be advised if a serious incident has occurred and advised of the process and the purpose of any investigation to be undertaken.  However, this does not always happen.  

If you believe that a serious error has occurred then you should ask the hospital involved if they are carrying out a SII.  An SII should consider any questions and concerns you have and allow you to contribute to the investigation. You should be given access to the findings or any interim findings and be given the opportunity to respond/comment on the findings and recommendations of the final report.

Complaining about NHS care

If you have concerns with the NHS care you have received at a hospital you have a right to make a complaint. The NHS has a complaints process.

There is a time limit of 12 months for bringing a complaint, which runs from the date treatment, was provided, however, extensions to the time limit can be granted, in situations where it would have been difficult for the patient to complain earlier.

The letter of complaint should set out what happened to you, why you are unhappy with the care you received and the questions you would like answering.  You can obtain help from  Patient Advice and Liaison Services (PALS), whose officers are available in most hospitals. They offer confidential advice, support and information on health-related matters to patients, their families and their carers. 
The letter acknowledging your complaint should provide an indication of how long it will take to investigate your complaint and when you can expect to receive a full response.

Every patient has a right to have their complaint dealt with efficiently, and for it to be properly investigated.  If you are not satisfied with the response to your complaint you can ask the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) to look into your complaint. They investigate mistakes or poor service which causes suffering and can ask the hospital to, for example, put things right for you. However, the PHSO does not investigate every complaint.

Regulatory Bodies

Healthcare professionals are regulated by independent bodies, for example doctors are regulated by the General Medical Council (GMC) and nurses are regulated by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). If they are sufficiently concerned that a patient’s safety is at risk these bodies can issue a warning or strike the health professional off the register so they cannot practice anymore. However, they will only usually act when an issue of serious professional misconduct arises.

Legal Claim in Clinical Negligence

Instead of or in addition to the above you can instruct a solicitor to investigate a claim in negligence for you. This is the route you will need to take if you wish to claim compensation for your injuries and losses, as the other processes do not deliver compensation. We recommend you choose a specialist in medical negligence cases, such as those listed as specialists in clinical negligence by the Law Society. If investigating a claim for you we would hope to obtain answers for you and maybe an apology, as well as financial compensation. Your solicitor can also assist with helping you compose questions to ask as part of a SII, making a complaint or referring your matter to the GMC or NMC.

If in doubt about any of the above routes then do call a solicitor, who can provide you with at least some preliminary advice.