The clinical negligence bill paid by NHS trusts every year quadrupled over the past decade, from £0.4 billion in 2006-07 to £1.6 billion last year, according to MPs.
However, despite concerns about rising costs that are stripping resources from frontline services and patients, the government has been slow and complacent in its response, the Public Accounts Committee says.
In a report published today the committee notes a “prevailing attitude of defensiveness in the NHS when things go wrong, and a reluctance to admit mistakes, which is likely to be leading to more clinical negligence claims”.
The MPs warn that increasing financial pressures on the NHS have started to affect waiting times and the quality of care, which risks leading to even more clinical negligence claims and in turn greater cost.
Almost 40 per cent of clinical negligence claims against trusts are related to a failure or delay to diagnose or treat a patient, it says.
The increasing financial pressure on trusts has already started affecting standards of care. In particular, more patients are waiting longer for their treatments, which could increase the risk of future clinical negligence claims.
NHS staff are working under rising levels of pressure that may also affect trusts’ ability to deal effectively with complaints. Spending on clinical negligence is forecast to increase from 1.8 per cent of trusts’ income in 2015-16 to 4 per cent by 2020-21, further reducing the amount of money available for patient care, the report says.
The MPs say that a lack of consistent data across the system also mean that the NHS still does not fully understand the root causes of negligence or why some people suffering harm choose to make claims, so it is not well placed to learn from its mistakes.
“It is important that patients suffering as a result of clinical negligence are compensated and that lessons are learnt but the mix of stretching efficiency targets, increasing financial pressures and patients waiting longer for treatment carries the risk of clinical negligence claims spiralling out of control without effective action,” the report says.
Meg Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South & Shoreditch and the committee’s chairwoman, said: “I am concerned that funding available for NHS services and the costs of clinical negligence are locked in a vicious spiral, one that without urgent action will spin out of control.
“The NHS must move more quickly to share best practice in the handling of harmful incidents and complaints. This should be a fundamental part of what remains a disappointingly slow-moving shift towards openness and transparency.”
Hillier added that “whistleblowers in the NHS are too often seen as a problem. What’s needed is a more open culture so that mistakes are acknowledged and learnt from”.