A campaign group for people injured by their healthcare is calling for more publicly funded advice and advocacy so they no longer feel that they have to go “straight to a lawyer”.
The Harmed Patients Alliance (HPA) said access to independent support could make it “much more likely that a patient/family gets their needs satisfied without the need to take legal action at all”.
Even if legal action did follow, this “empowerment” of patients could help early resolution and save the NHS “millions of pounds in litigation costs”.
The HPA said in a report that well-advised and supported people were more likely to take an active part in investigations and know when they should contact regulators.
“This approach can help avoid people feeling they have to make a formal complaint or to take legal action.
“It is far better that people are supported well from the beginning rather than them feeling they have to go straight to a lawyer.
“Many people go to a lawyer because they are looking for an independent ‘advisor and advocate’ to take an interest in their needs and help them get what they need, and a lawyer is all that is on offer in their regard.”
The HPA went on: “Even if an incident does result in legal action, if there has been a better-informed investigation through empowerment of the patient/family through independent advice/advocacy, it is more likely the NHS will recognise it was at fault earlier and save the high legal costs of prolonged litigation when meritorious cases are defended but ultimately settled.
“Access to independent advice and advocacy for injured patients/families would also support efforts by NHS Resolution to avoid litigation where possible and seek early resolution of cases when they do arise.
“Collectively, independent advice and advocacy being available could save the NHS millions of pounds in litigation costs.”
This advice could also cover potential legal action and “sources of specialist legal advice/representation”.
The report said speaking to someone independent and specialist enough to listen and understand their needs, explain in more depth about their rights and options, and offer advice where appropriate, would help most people.
Some would benefit from in-person support during the process, such as helping them compose and deliver communications, understand reports, accompany them to meetings or where appropriate act as an advocate.
The HPA said the “simple fact” was that no services of this nature were currently funded by the Department of Health & Social Care, the NHS, regulators or other parts of the healthcare system, leaving injured patients and families “to fend for themselves” for the most part.
The HPA said local authorities were under a statutory duty to provide funding for independent NHS complaints advocacy.
Of the £15m available for the whole of England, much of the funding was “used up on the commissioning process and local authorities ‘top-slicing’ the budget for other uses”.
The HPA said the complaints could be about car parking, quality of food, rudeness and waiting times, as well as complaints about medical treatment.
“If independent advocacy for anyone who makes a complaint to the NHS of any kind is funded, how can it be right that no funding is allocated to ensure independent advocacy, advice and information is available specifically for patients who experience harm as a result of patient safety incidents?”