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British reluctant to sue health system

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown looks on during a visit to a National Health Service centre in central London, England.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: As unwieldy as the American health-care system is, we've got no monopoly on patient dissatisfaction. Concerns about poor care and bad treatment don't go away, whether you live somewhere else or whether there's a public option or not.

Marketplace's Stephen Beard reports now from London where the British government, through the National Health Service, is the main health-care provider.


STEPHEN BEARD: The NHS is one of Britain's most cherished institutions. Health care -- free at the point of delivery -- is widely seen as the country's most highly-prized public service. But that doesn't mean the NHS is perfect. Far from it.

Adrian Goddard is deeply critical of the treatment his aged mother received in an NHS hospital.

ADRIAN GODDARD: She was reduced to this groaning, agonized sort of heap in this bed. I don't think it's anything that anyone who saw it, who had any feeling for her, will ever sort of get over. It was just dreadful.

She was admitted to hospital with a broken leg in the summer of 2008. She died several months later of septicemia, the result, says Adrian, of neglect and incompetent care.

GODDARD: The notion that you could be admitted to a hospital for one condition and die from septicemia from a bedsore... I mean, it's testament to the neglect. Just that simple fact.

He is now suing the NHS for negligence. That makes him a little bit unusual.

Peter Walsh of Action Against Medical Accidents says when it comes to the NHS people are rather reluctant to sue.

PETER WALSH: They're embarrassed to even raise the question of potential compensation. And people tell us often that this is because of the stigma attached to seeking compensation or suing health professionals or the NHS.

[Sound of doctor describing procedure in operating room.]

This operation was a success. But Peter Walsh says more than half a million NHS procedures and treatments a year are bungled. And yet only 5,000 of them -- less than 1 percent -- lead to a claim for compensation.

WALSH: We think that's largely because the NHS is held in such esteem. In fact is so dear to the hearts of the British public that people will only sue if they really have to.

For example, if they need money to cope with a disability caused by a medical accident. And they'll sue to make a point.

Dr. Keith Brent is a spokesman for the main doctors organization, the BMA.

KEITH BRENT: What they want is an explanation. It's not really money that they want. It's an explanation, an apology. And perhaps some kind of assurance that, hopefully, if something has gone wrong that shouldn't have gone wrong, that won't happen again to other people.

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Personal injury lawyers have been energetically pushing the case for taking legal action against the NHS. Some have even been allowed to advertise their services in doctors' surgeries and hospital waiting rooms. But it still doesn't seem to have increased the number of claims. For disgruntled patients and their families, suing remains the last resort.

Adrian Goddard is going to court over his mother's treatment, but only because he made a formal complaint and was stonewalled.

GODDARD: It became clear by about the second or third round of correspondence that no one was going to accept any responsibility for this. That it was an exercise in basically stringing the process out so that we would lose momentum and lose interest eventually.

Some observers say the NHS might even deflect a number of claims by owning up and apologizing sooner when things go wrong. But doctors, lawyers and patient groups here seem to agree: very few Brits regard suing the taxpayer-funded NHS as a money-making opportunity.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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