"If doctors fear being sued, taking away that fear might help patients" Response to Guardian article

14 May 2014

Richard P Grant's article in the Guardian yesterday suggests that Lord Saatchi's medical innovation bill will make it easier for patients to obtain experimental treatment.

Grant asks the reader to imagine how they would feel if they were told by their doctor that there was nothing more that could be done for them and that the doctor felt unable to offer an experimental treatment which "looked promising" because the doctor feared being sued.

There is no doubt that hearing that no more treatment can be offered is utterly devastating. No one who has had a loved one given this news will ever forget the feelings of sheer desperation and disbelief it brought. But how many people are told that experimental treatment cannot be offered because of the risk of litigation?

Our experience is that there is not a lack of clarity or certainty about the circumstances in which a doctor can safely innovate. Other organisation’s also found this, for example, Cancer Research’s response to the consultation confirmed that they had not found any evidence that a fear of medical litigation is a barrier to innovation in cancer treatment.

Robert Francis QC, author of the Mid Staffs Enquiry report writes in his response to the consultation that this bill proceeds from a fundamental misunderstanding of how medical negligence law works. We agree with this and would of course support any training program designed to educate doctors who are unclear about the current law and circumstances in which they can safely offer innovative treatment.

Thousands of NHS patients take part in properly run clinical trials every day. The results of these trials are collated and considered by scientists. The All Trials Campaign, which is supported by NICE and the NHS Health Research Authority, aims to ensure that results of trials are published as widely as possible, to encourage progress and research. Without this sharing of information, the campaign has identified that there could be bad treatment decisions, missed opportunities for good medicine and that trials might be repeated unnecessarily.

Given these risks, it is concerning that the proposed bill it would not be mandatory for doctors to share the knowledge gained from carrying out experimental treatment. Thus, we could arrive at a situation where a doctor in London has developed a new and innovative treatment but has not shared this with his or her colleagues in Edinburgh or Cardiff.

The guidelines which Grant refers to in his article protect us from maverick doctors and ensure that, in principle, we all have access to good care and treatment. As Grant points out, the guidelines are based on evidence, expert opinion and the results of clinical trials. The risk with the proposed bill is that it would not be mandatory to follow the guidelines before offering experimental treatment, and that patients could be denied the opportunity of trying the guideline treatment. 

 I attended a consultation event to discuss the proposed bill on 10 April. At that event, which was attended by drugs companies, charity representatives and complimentary therapists the overwhelming view was that the bill should not become law. Our fill written response to the Bill can be found here.

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