There can be few who doubt the commitment and professionalism of doctors and nurses who work under immense pressure on the frontline of the NHS, but it is a sad reality that mistakes in medical treatment given to patients can have fatal consequences.
When such circumstances transpire, it is entirely natural and right that grieving relatives want those responsible to be held accountable for any errors that may have occurred. However, as a new review into the use of gross negligence manslaughter criminal investigations in healthcare points out today, there is a world of difference between “honest mistakes” which have unintended consequences and much rarer cases of “exceptionally bad” practice that directly result in death.
Eminent surgeon Professor Sir Norman Williams, who conducted the inquiry, found there is currently not a clear enough divide between the two ends of the scale; meaning NHS staff are operating under a “real fear” they may face criminal proceedings or lose their jobs if something goes wrong despite their best efforts.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has promised more support for doctors and nurses so errors can be learnt from without fear of prosecution. He says such a move will tackle the “unintended chilling effect on clinicians’ ability to learn from mistakes”, while also importantly promising patients improved scrutiny of deaths in the NHS.
As Mr Hunt aptly puts it, “when something tragically wrong in healthcare, the best apology to grieving families is to guarantee that no-one will experience that same heartache again”. As such, this is a step in the right direction.