6 Steps of Personal Vigilance to Combat Rising Medical Negligence Claims

04/02/2015 12:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015


With medical negligence claims against the National Health Service (NHS) nearly doubling in the past 7 years and over £22 billion, one-fifth of the annual NHS budget (reported at £115.4 billion for 2015/2016), put aside to pay damages, the U.K. has skyrocketed to the top of the charts in medical malpractice. Begun in 1948 after World War II with the idea that good health care should be free for all, U.K. residents receive free health care, with only some prescriptions, dental and vision care costs not included. The NHS is funded by taxes.

For those individuals who opt out of NHS to take advantage of private medical care programs offered through their employers, they are able to choose their specialist and avoid wait lists for non-emergency medical procedures and tests, two things that patients in the NHS system cannot do. Increasing figures of awarded damages in the U.K. factor in long-term future care and loss of earnings.

In the United States, medical negligence is the third leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer, estimated at killing more than 210,000 patients per year. Britain spends less on health care per person (around $3,400) than the U.S. ($8,500) and boasts a longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality, yet the U.S. boasts lower cancer mortality rates.

The bottom line is that no health care system is perfect. Doctors are human beings and therefore subject to imperfection. If you follow these six steps of personal vigilance, you can ensure you will have better health care experiences all around and be less likely to fall victim to a medical negligence claim as the result of the poor judgment or performance error(s) of a health care practitioner.

You are your own best health care advocate. Just like the group school projects you were forced to participate in as a child, where you secretly wished you could just complete the assignment all your own because you would do it faster and better, no one is a better advocate for your own health than you. Listen to your gut. Ask questions. Don't be afraid to take up time and space in a consultation in order to learn everything you need to know. It's your time. You don't need to hurry out of the room. If you're ever in a hospital and you are conscious, question every nurse or doctor that comes into your room and ask him or her what they are doing and why, or if they are administering medication, intravenously or orally, ask what you are taking and again, why. If you are in a hospital for 24+ hours, the staff will change two or three times, so communication and documentation might not always be accurate. There is a reason surgeons X off the limb or breast they are not working on; so they don't accidentally put a functioning body part under the knife. Surgeons are humans, not God. You have a right to know what medical professionals are doing to your body at all times.

Have someone you trust with you to be your second set of eyes and ears. When you have doctor appointments or consultations regarding scheduled treatments or procedures, ask a reliable loved one, your husband, wife, sister, brother, best friend, to go with you and be your second set of eyes and ears. Medical procedures can be stressful; having someone you trust with you to listen to the same information the doctor gives you serves as a great double check and sounding board to see if you understood the same things. Similarly, your second set of eyes and ears can think of important additional questions you may be missing in your comprehension of the medical issue on the table.

When you can, do your own due diligence research. You and your doctor's bedside manner might not be the best match, and in the United States, health insurance system challenges may result in your not being told the whole story when given your interpreted test results, or it might involve a recommendation for an unnecessary medical procedure or prescribed course of action. Do your own research ahead of time. Seek out conventional and unconventional methods of treatment. All you need is a computer or smartphone. If you don't have access to either, head to the local library, where you can usually use their computers for free. Read any and all information you can about your problem. It will allow you to ask better questions when you and your trusted friend or family member meet with your doctor and to make an informed decision about your course of treatment.

When feasible, get a second opinion. You debate between which color to paint the bedroom and which china pattern to add to your wedding registry. So why would you accept one medical opinion governing your body as the end all be all? Obtain at least two opinions. Weigh them thoughtfully.

Have a living will and power of attorney. Should you become incapacitated and unable to speak for yourself, a living will can instruct your health care providers on your wishes of what to do. It exists in the event that your health recovery will not happen. A power of attorney can allow a trusted person to act on your behalf when you are in between the stages of incapacitated and living will, meaning you won't yet die, but can't speak for yourself. Part of being your own health care advocate means providing for these two things ahead of time in the event of an emergency. Many living wills and power of attorney documents can be printed and completed for free or low fees online.

Eat well and move every single day. This last one may sound ridiculous, but more and more, scientists are learning that many diseases can be prevented or lessened by maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise. So eat well -- everything in moderation -- and get up and move every single day. While you can't halt the effects of genetics, just doing these two things alone, consistently throughout your life, will decrease your time spent in front of doctors and in hospitals, as well as the potential of a need to file a medical negligence claim.