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Don’t stigmatise doctors who are sued, urges MDU

25 February 2009

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The Medical Defence Union (MDU) is warning against using information about clinical negligence claims as a measure of doctors’ performance.

In an article in the latest edition of its journal, the MDU says that placing too much reliance on such information is likely to stigmatise doctors, as “information about negligence claims is not a useful indicator of poor performance”.

A number of bodies and organisations currently require, or are seeking powers to require, the disclosure of information about negligence claims made against doctors.

Dr Karen Roberts, MDU medicolegal adviser, said: “Of course it is in everyone’s interest to identify poorly performing doctors as early as possible, in order to prevent harm to patients and so that any problems can be remedied swiftly.

“But we believe there are better and fairer ways to achieve this than collecting claims data. Concentrating on improving local clinical governance arrangements so that problems are picked up and can be addressed as early as possible would be much more effective.”

She added: “Some bodies seem not to understand the purpose of the claims procedure. When a claim is made, the investigation that follows is only aimed at establishing whether and how much compensation should be awarded to the patient, not whether the doctor involved had any performance problems.

“Information about notifications of claims would not be effective as 70% of claims notified by MDU medical members are discontinued and most of the remaining 30% are settled out of court, with no admission of liability.

“When you also consider that settled claims take, on average, six to eight years from the incident occurring to settlement, it is obvious that gathering data about settled claims doesn’t provide an accurate guide to a doctor’s current performance either.”

The MDU also points out that the incidence of clinical negligence claims varies according to factors unrelated to clinical competence – for instance, whether a doctor happens to practise in an area where data show that patients are more likely to bring claims, for example the north west of England.

The MDU is concerned that collecting claims information could have a detrimental effect if doctors are deterred from agreeing to settle a claim. It says that this would not be in patients’ interests and may also act as a disincentive to taking on additional activities, which are seen as higher risk of claims, such as GPs fitting intrauterine contraceptive devices or performing certain types of minor surgery or choosing not to practise in an area where there are more claims.