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Medical Malpractice

Medical Negligence During COVID-19: Have Things Escalated?

— May 27, 2021

With COVID-19 taking priority over other medical conditions during the pandemic, it’s been predicted that medical negligence cases could soar in the coming months. Here’s why…

The amount of work put in by hospitals across the world to treat people with COVID-19 is commendable. That said, with an increased focus on one condition, many other medical conditions have been left by the wayside.

Research shows that people suffering through non-COVID conditions during the pandemic have not received the same standard of care they would have beforehand. Because of this, more people than ever likely have the right to make a medical negligence claim if they choose to.

In this post, we’re going to discuss whether the admirable work of medical professionals treating people with coronavirus has caused an escalation in medical negligence cases.

Has COVID-19 Caused More Incidents of Medical Negligence?

Before we look at whether medical negligence cases have actually risen or not, we’re going to look at whether COVID-19 has caused more incidents of medical negligence. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, medical staff across the world had to make impossible decisions over which patients to treat and how to allocate their limited resources. These decisions led to routine investigations and operations either being cancelled or postponed.

Between April and the end of June, the British Medical Association (BMA) estimated that in England more than 500,000 operations and treatments, including over 200,000 cancer treatments, were cancelled or delayed.

The BMA also estimated that over 2,500,000 first-time outpatient appointments were cancelled. Also, over 40 percent of doctors who took part in the survey said they were treating patients with conditions which had progressed further than they would typically expect.

The longer-term impacts of these delayed appointments, treatments and investigations remains to be seen. Currently, there is nothing stopping any of these people from making a claim for medical negligence.

The duty of care owed by doctors to their patients doesn’t change as a result of the pandemic. So, people are within their rights to make a medical negligence claim if they received poor treatment from a doctor.

Are Medical Negligence Cases Actually on the Rise Due to COVID-19?

We now know that many people received delayed treatment for medical conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, but has this translated to more medical negligence claims?

Due to the figures we’ve shared above, many doctors, negligence solicitors and other professionals in the field expected there to be a huge rise in the number of medical negligence cases.

In a survey of more than 2,400 Medical Protection Society (MPS) members in the UK, more than two in five doctors expressed concerns that they would be taken to court over patient harm caused by delayed referrals and treatment. The Medical Defence Union (MDU) also expressed concerns over the risks of a surge in medical negligence claims towards the end of 2020. 

Despite the worry from the medical profession that hospitals across the UK and the wider world would be overcome by a wave of medical negligence claims, they have yet to materialise. Figures have actually shown that there has been a 45 percent fall in medical negligence cases compared to the previous year.

Peter Walsh, Chief Executive of the patient charity Action against Medical Accidents, has said that positive sentiment towards the NHS, and other medical professionals across the world, might be deterring patients from making medical negligence claims.

On top of this, there have also been several logistical issues the pandemic has caused. For example, obtaining the supportive expert evidence and medical records needed to make a medical negligence claim has become trickier.

Will Medical Negligence Claims Escalate in the Future?

Due to the reasons given above, medical negligence cases have stayed relatively low during the pandemic. The millions of people who had their treatments delayed are effectively staying silent.

However, positive sentiments felt towards the health service could easily deteriorate once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, and medical records and expert evidence is more easily obtainable. This is especially likely for those who have lost their jobs and a medical negligence claim could be their only way to make money whilst they’re suffering from a serious health condition.

However, the British Medical Journal, and others, have suggested that the health service should receive immunity from medical negligence claims because they were all under immense strain that they couldn’t control.

In the UK, final year medical students and retired healthcare workers were called upon to assist hospitals during the pandemic. On top of that, clinicians were performing procedures outside their usual expertise and shouldn’t be held accountable for delaying other treatments.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on
Photo by National Cancer Institute on

If this immunity is introduced, medical negligence claims will not escalate once the pandemic is over. However, there are many implementation issues that could make this immunity roll-out difficult:

  • Will immunity apply to all staff or just the ones who were treating COVID patients?
  • Over what time period will this immunity apply; when the first case was treated in hospital or when the first lockdown took place?
  • Will the immunity take regional variances in the spread of the virus into account?

Other concerns around a patient’s human right to hold medical professionals to account for negligent care could also throw a spanner in the works of the immunity proposal. 

Has COVID-19 Escalated the Medical Negligence Scene?

In this post, we’ve managed to determine that COVID-19 likely increased instances of medical negligence. What’s more, most of these instances haven’t translated into actual medical negligence cases, but there could be more in the future if immunity isn’t implemented.

Hopefully this article has given you some insight into the current state of medical negligence during COVID-19. Only time will tell if there’s to be a spike in the number of claims in the future.

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