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Tuesday, April 13, 1999 Published at 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK


Doctors battle to keep ahead of legal changes

Legal cases against GPs have risen thirteen-fold in 10 years

Doctors are facing an increasing battle to keep up-to-date with legal reforms, a major conference has been told.

Dr Gerard Panting of the Medical Protection Society (MPS) told the Royal Society of Medicine conference in London on Tuesday that doctors felt increasingly threatened by legal action because of all the medical and legal changes they had to keep up with.

The legal changes include the introduction of the Data Protection Act and the forthcoming Human Rights Act which should come into force by next year.

Doctors are still unclear what the implementation of European human rights legislation via the Human Rights Act will mean for the medical profession.

Dr Panting told News Online it could have an impact on waiting lists.

"If people have to wait beyond a reasonable period of time, they could take legal action," he said.

He said the Health Bill now going through Parliament would also affect the way doctors practised.

He added that the number of legal changes and an increasing mound of paperwork were having an affect on doctors' morale.

"Doctors feel they are being attacked from every angle," he said.

""They face an increasing range of duties, have to keep up-to-date in different areas and up-to-date with the legal system.

"They see themselves as more and more vulnerable to legal proceedings."

According to the MPS, GPs are 13 times more likely to face litigation now than they were 10 years ago.

'Spurious' claims

Some doctors fear the rise in litigation will result in doctors avoiding difficult forms of treatment, where possible.

The MPS says many claims made against doctors are spurious and it wants to see a change in the law to allow the NHS to get its costs paid if a case is thrown out.

Dr Panting says the MPS is conducting research into why the number of legal cases has risen.

He believes one reason is the fact that the UK is a much more consumerist society now than it was 10 years ago.

"People are more aware of their rights," he said.

"They have more access to information about best practice which increases their expectations, sometimes unrealistically."

He added that the increase in large GP practices meant the personal relationship between doctor and patient had also broken down to some extent.

He said new pre-action protocols being introduced at the end of April would mean cases would no longer hang over doctors for months.

Under the Woolf protocols, cases will have to be dealt with within three months.

Defensive steps

Professor Averil Mansfield of the Imperial College School of Medicine told the conference that more steps should be taken to stop errors happening in the first place.

This included sharing of knowledge about avoidable errors and the provision of more time and facilities for doctors to learn about good practice.

She also spoke about how defensive medicine, traditionally seen as bad medicine, could help both the patient as well as covering the doctor's back.

Dr Panting said this could include a period of observation or a skull x-ray for a person who had suffered a head injury.

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