The UUP has voiced concern after it was revealed that several hundred new healthcare negligence cases were opened up last year – adding to an existing backlog of thousands of cases.
Figures released by the Department of Health on Wednesday showed that 686 fresh cases of “clinical/social care negligence” were opened in 2015/16.
Whilst this is down from the 752 new cases which were opened in 2014/15, it is higher than the number of fresh ones which opened in 2013/14, 2012/13, or 2011/12.
Last year’s batch of 686 fresh cases also formed part of a total number of 3,613 open cases, more than 100 of which date from before 1993 – the furthest date back for which the records in the report stretch.
This total tally of open cases has grown relentlessly every year since at least 2011, with new ones added more rapidly than the old ones are being resolved.
After the figures were released, Ulster Unionist spokeswoman Jo-Anne Dobson said the health service must “place a greater emphasis on avoiding lapses in patient safety if it is ever to get on top of the hundreds of new cases of medical negligence that are opening every year”.
Upper Bann MLA Mrs Dobson said the work performed by the Province’s under-pressure health staff was a “credit” to them.
But she added: “I am concerned however that despite cases of medical negligence regularly receiving significant media and professional attention, as well as several policy initiatives from the Health Department to try to reduce them, that there were so many reported cases last year.”
Wednesday’s report also sets out the financial cost to the public purse of dealing with negligence claims.
For example in 2015/16, 639 cases were closed – 391 without payment, and 248 with payment.
In total, £31.8m was paid out on all those 248 cases, including £22.8m in damages.
In some cases, the amount paid in legal costs exceeded the amount of damages.
Mrs Dobson also claimed that the health authorities had been “unreasonably dragging the process out” in some negligence cases, and that a number of claims could have been disposed of much sooner “if the health service had admitted liability earlier in the cases it knew it was at fault”.
She said: “Whilst these sorts of cases can have a major financial cost, with tens of millions of ill-afforded health service funding being spent each year on compensation and legal fees, the human cost can actually be much more significant.
“Mistakes made in a medical setting can have life-changing consequences for the patient and their family so it is essential that such mistakes are avoided at all costs.”
Of the 686 new negligence cases in 2015/16, the biggest single number by far were in the Belfast health trust area (242), followed by the South Eastern (136) and the Southern (105) trusts.
Out of the 3,613-strong caseload of overall open negligence claims, the biggest category is listed as “treatment” (1,121), followed by “diagnosis and tests” (711), and “other” (368).
Meanwhile, “pregnancy and childbirth” accounted for 296, “operations” for 295, and a category marked simply “unknown” made up 260 of the claims.
Seventeen of the total related to “unexpected deaths”.