Did you know that although doctors have a professional obligation to tell patients the truth they have no legal obligation to do so?
This surprising fact is not known by many but it is something that the family of Robbie Powell is very aware of.
Welsh schoolboy Robbie was just ten when he died after a succession of doctors failed to diagnose the life-threatening (but treatable) glandular condition, Addison’s Disease, until it was too late.
This week, the government finally announced that it would introduce a legally enforceable obligation for healthcare professionals to be open and honest with patients and their families when things go wrong.
The government refers to the new obligation as ‘Duty of Candour’ but campaigners want it to be called by another name: ‘Robbie’s Law’.
Luckily, the standard of healthcare in this country is usually excellent, thanks to the expertise and hard work of health care workers. But sometimes things do go wrong. No win no fee solicitors Claims Direct can help you receive compensation if you have suffered as a result of medical negligence.
It is hoped that Robbie’s Law will lead to a greater culture of openness in hospitals so that mistakes can be identified, and corrected, quickly – reducing the need for medical negligence claims.
This time last year, it seemed unlikely that a Duty of Candour law would be entered on the statute books.
The Health Secretary’s attitude
On 11th June 2010, it was widely-reported that Andrew Lansley, in his first major speech since becoming health secretary, had said that nurses should not be legally bound to own up and inform a patient if they make a treatment error.
Instead, Mr Lansley indicated that he favoured a system whereby the NHS inserted a right to raise concerns in the public interest into staff contracts. This suggested that the health secretary wanted to make owning up to mistakes a right rather than a responsibility.
He said: “I hope we can do something which doesn’t involve the excessive bureaucracy of trying to legislate.”
A Nursing Times survey at the time of Mr Lansley’s speech seemed to suggest that nurses were keener on honesty. Almost half of the 1,900 nurses polled (45 per cent) thought it should be mandatory for patients to be informed of drug errors, regardless of whether the error harmed the patients.
Just seven per cent opposed a legal obligation, while a third believed that patients should only be notified if they were harmed.
Ironically, despite being inspired by a Welsh case, the law will not be applied in Wales as the responsibility for health issues comes under the jurisdiction of the devolved Welsh parliament.
Robbie’s father, Will Powell, of Ystradgynlais, in the upper Swansea Valley, speaking to Wales Online, said: “I believe that had there been a duty of candour in 1990 the circumstances of Robbie’s death would have been investigated openly and honestly at the time.
“Everyone involved, including the GPs, could have learned from the mistakes and moved on with their lives.”
Which is not to say that Robbie should ever be forgotten.
Peter Walsh, chief executive of campaign group Action Against Medical Accidents, said: “This new duty should be known as ‘Robbie’s Law’ in honour of Robbie Powell, the young boy who became the symbol of our campaign.”
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