THERE CAN be little doubt that there is greater public and political interest in medical malpractice than there is in negligence claims against solicitors. Harold Shipman's conviction for murder, the Bristol heart scandal and the case of the disgraced gynaecologist, Rodney Ledward, have all served to heighten concern both within and outside the NHS. The same can hardly be said of the legal profession whose members, despite facing many thousands of claims for incompetence each year, seem to escape the headlines which often greet individual doctors and hospitals.
Why this should be so is, perhaps, obvious; the results of clinical negligence are far more startling and often permanent than the consequences of solicitors' errors.
That does not mean, though, that there are not comparisons which can be drawn between the two professions, both of which are experiencing fundamental changes in the approach to reducing their exposure to lawsuits.
It is nothing new to suggest that where the US goes, the UK will not be far behind. The "litigation culture" has winged its way across the Atlantic and has fuelled the boom in claims against doctors and solicitors such that both are now very big business. A recent National Audit Office report estimated potential liabilities for clinical negligence in 1999 at a staggering pounds 2.4bn - a massive increase of pounds 600m from the previous year and equating to an annual drain on NHS resources of over pounds 1bn.
The lawyers fare a little better. Their soon-to-be-disbanded mutual insurance company (the Solicitors' Indemnity Fund: SIF) paid out over pounds 260m to disgruntled clients in 1999 and pounds 40m to their lawyers in fees. Unfortunately, at least for the purposes of this article, the statistics do not reveal what proportion of those figures relate to errors made by solicitors in dealing with clinical negligence litigation!
So what is being done? The starting-point must be within the professions themselves, and here the lawyers seem to have got the jump on the doctors. It was only in the spring that the General Medical Council published its consultation paper on "revalidation". The scheme will involve every doctor in the UK undergoing an annual appraisal together with an assessment every five years by a team of doctors to see if they are fit to continue to practise. Doctors found to be failing to maintain their skills or not keeping up to date with medical advances could be struck off.
While anything new is bound to be met with some suspicion, BMA chairman, Dr Ian Bogle, has said: "Patients have the right to know that every doctor on the medical register is professionally up to date, competent and safe. …