UK Health Law Changes Could See Wilfully Negligent Doctors Jailed

The government has proposed shaking up health law to see doctors jailed for the “wilful neglect” of patients.

These changes to NHS health law follow the Mid Staffordshire health scandal and other medical negligence scandals, and could see wilful neglect become a criminal offence. However, these sanctions will only be used in extremely rare occasions, and unintended mistakes will not be illegal. Sanctions will be intended for hospital workers that neglect or ill-treat patients deliberately.

A consultation into the maximum and minimum sentences will be carried out in the immediate future. The offence of wilful neglect will be modelled under health laws under the Mental Capacity Act, which can see people sentenced to up to five years in jail.

Berwick report into UK health laws

The creation of this new criminal offence was first proposed by the review into patient safety led by Professor Don Berwick. He said that creating criminal offences would deal with the worst cases of medical negligence caused by a careless attitude towards patients. His other recommendations generally called for improved standards of transparency in the NHS and in its supervision and regulation, for improved communication between patients and NHS workers, improved complaints systems, and for adequate staffing levels.

RCN responds to criminal offences proposals

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has shown some apprehension towards the new health law, questioning whether it is actually necessary. General Secretary and Chief Executive of the RCN Peter Carter said while his organisation will never excuse workers who neglect patients wilfully, and that while it is right to hold these workers to account when they are guilty, it is uncertain whether or not new laws are necessary.

When errors are made and people suffer harm as a result, Mr Carter said investigations should look into the whole system of care as well as the individual actions of a particular clinician. He said in many cases, frontline workers face a number of pressures when delivering care, with poor staffing levels heightening this problem. Employers’ inadequate staffing levels can also be lead to substandard care, he added.

Mr Carter said that alongside protecting patients with new health law legislation, the government should be looking into safe staffing levels, which ought to be legally enforceable. This would have the “single biggest impact” in improving standards of care across the NHS, he argued.

BMA responds to health law proposals

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, British Medical Association Co-chairman Dr Andrew Collier suggested that criminal offenses for wilful neglect could create a “climate of fear” , and that doctors who fail to meet the standards expected of them require help and support, rather than the threat of a jail sentence.

He also said  that the government ought to focus more on staffing levels, a sentiment echoed by Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham.

It is still possible for doctors to be jailed after committing clinical negligence under current health laws, although the threshold for prosecution is considerably high and such convictions are rare. Earlier in November, consultant surgeon David Sellu, 66, received a two-and-a-half year sentence after being found guilty of committing manslaughter through gross negligence.

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