The Law of Incomplete Treatment


Patients have suffered ‘severe harm’ at St George’s Hospital in Tooting after it lost track of its waiting lists, reports The Telegraph. The internal records at St George’s Hospital did not record whether patients had completed their course of treatment or if they required any additional medical appointments.

Safety systems in our hospitals increasingly rely on clear lines of communication and forward planning to avoid such harm to patients arising. It is recognised that individual doctors and nurses do not act in isolation. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that the systems in place allow for the recording of basic information, such as whether a course of treatment has been completed.

It is reassuring that only a small number of patients suffered harm, and that the NHS’s Duty of Candour obligations appear to have resulted in this avoidable error being made public. However, it remains worrying that this error occurred. Patients (who probably were very grateful for the treatment they were provided with) were placed at risk of suffering a permanent or long-term injury. This risk could have been avoided if more care was taken.

In many other cases, it may well have been that the error was not picked up because other parts of the safety net had been working. For example, the hospital doctor may have told the patient when their next appointment was or the patient was referred back by their GP.

It is also relatively easy to place the blame for such errors on external factors such as increasing population age, ‘unhealthy’ lifestyle choices or budget cuts to social care provision. Whilst these do play a part in increasing the numbers of patients seeking medical treatment, they have been known for many years and the safety systems in place proactively take these into account.

Is there anything for patients to be worried about?

Ideally, there shouldn’t be any variation in the standard of care provided between different hospital Trusts. The NHS is there to provide a consistent level of care, no matter which part of the UK you live in. Every NHS hospital is part of a larger Trust which has responsibility for the provision of medical care. Each Trust must comply with national standards.

A very significant part of the annual NHS budget is spent on safeguarding patients from any potential harm and this is successful in the vast majority of cases. Patients shouldn’t assume that stories such as this prove that their local hospital is not providing a reasonable standard of care overall or that the advice or treatment they are receiving is poor.

At any medical appointment, you can help your doctor understand what your condition is likely to be, and what treatment will be given by making sure you clearly describe the symptoms you are suffering from and to clearly answer any questions you are asked. It is also helpful if you understand what the next steps are and when your next appointment will be taking place.

However, if they do get things wrong, then you should consider making a formal complaint to the hospital. They are required to investigate your complaint openly, fairly and quickly under the NHS’s Duty of Candour.

If you are dissatisfied with that response, then you can approach the Parliamentary & Health Ombudsman and ask for a review. You could also seek legal advice from a specialist firm such as Simpson Millar LLP as to whether your treatment was negligent.

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