Thursday, March 18, 1999 Published at 18:29 GMT
Huge rise in GP negligence claims
The number of claims against GPs has shot up
GPs are 13 times more likely to face litigation than they were 10 years ago, according to the Medical Protection Society (MPS).
Many of the claims taken out against doctors are spurious and the NHS does not get any money back even when it wins the cases, the society says.
The MPS, which represents almost half of UK doctors, wants to see the system changed to allow the NHS to have its legal costs paid when it wins cases.
Dr John Hickey, medical director of the MPS, said: "I believe very strongly that if a doctor is found to be negligent then fair compensation should be paid.
"But if the doctor wins the case, we currently cannot get the costs back. That is wrong.
"There has to be an element of fairness."
The MPS has based its figures for negligence claims on the number of cases filed against its members between 1989 and 1998.
In 1989, 38 claims were filed, compared with 500 in 1998.
The size of settlements is also rising. The highest settlement in 1989 was £777,000.
This year there was one award of £3.9m.
Dr Hickey says the sums awarded in the UK shock even the Americans.
"They have more claims and a higher average than us, but most high awards are negotiated down there and they do not reach the levels of some of our claims," he said.
UK sums have been driven up by several factors relating to how compensation is decided.
They include a recent House of Lords ruling over how much a successful claimant can earn if their award is invested on the stock market.
Dr Hickey says this is likely to drive up NHS compensation costs substantially.
In 1998, the NHS' outstanding liabilities were around £2.3bn, he said.
He believes the Lords ruling could push the figure up to £3bn.
However, he believes some recent moves could drive down the amount of claims being taken out.
These include the introduction of "no win no fee" cases and the move to only allow specialist lawyers to deal with medical negligence cases brought with legal aid.
Dr Hickey also wants to see greater awareness among the public about issues surrounding compensation.
"We are developing a compensation culture where accidents no longer happen. Someone always has to be to blame," he said.
"People are more aware of their rights. They know how to complain, but we have got out of kilter.
"Compensation costs now cover the cost of private treatment. Is that fair? We need to think whether society can afford this."
Dr David Pickersgill, chairman of the British Medical Association Statutes and Regulations sub-committee, echoed Dr Hickey's comments and said GPs were becoming "increasingly litigation conscious".
"They are much more likely to refer people for investigations and refer people to specialists earlier in their illness.
"Of course, that can be no bad thing, but investigations do carry a risk and I know that some people are being referred for unnecessary investigations.
"It also means that the hospital system is becoming overloaded."