Social work and end-of-life care

Social work is important in end-of-life care

Archive for July 2013

African palliative care research: A coming of age

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An African proverb and the chance to link with some information about palliative care in Africa…

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Written by Malcolm Payne

25 July 2013 at 9:50 pm

Compensation when complex care goes wrong: we need public service not medical negligence

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130701 No fault claimsAn interesting comment from a lawyer about whether a ‘no fault’ basis for claims against the NHS would be better than the present system where people who are dissatisfied with their care on the NHS and seek compensation have to go to court. She’s writing on a blog about clinical negligence. Her view is that because you have to have expert evidence, it discourages people trying it on, and leads to a fair outcome. Many people also argue that the court system has a formula for compensation which is more realistic than the amount that would normally be arrived at by a bureaucratic system, in which the government would inevitably have a hand.

The main argument for a no fault system is that if you need compensation for something that has gone wrong, you have needs that should be met, and meeting those needs should not depend on whether you can prove someone was at fault. Often things go wrong and nobody is at fault, but your care needs still have to be met. And it means you have to go into battle, in public, and the medical profession has it well-sorted to defend themselves at all costs. Also, it often means that people who can prove a fault and get compensation get more choice and better, more luxurious care than someone with just the same needs you cannot prove a fault. Why should the wronged get better care than the unlucky?

One view of the interests of public policy, which this comment alludes to, is that having an adversarial system encourages the NHS (which after all is a public service) to conceal problems rather than seek to get it right for you and, by improving their services, for later patients too. Also, of course, it sets people against their doctors and service providers, when they will continue to need care later in their lives, but might often be seen as troublemakers. And where it is a public service, like social care services still are, a complaints mechanism and political responsibility should still play a part. The problem with just accepting a complaints mechanism and no fault compensation is that it seems to be impossible to get public services to look at their what they’ve done and acknowledge it when they’ve got it wrong. That’s probably human nature.

Added to the natural human tendency to be defensive if you are in the wrong, the market system of care, with bits of the service increasingly privatised, make it increasingly hard to tell what you should hold a public service responsible for. In the Guardian today, film-makers are complaining about the BBC ‘commissioners’ interfering in their creative processes to pursue the channel ‘demographic’, by which I mean some marketing policy that they’ve drawn up to differentiate their channel from some other piecemeal provision. Are NHS or social care commissioners likely to be any better at valuing creative but expensive care, or ideas that don’t fit the standard mold of policy that is in fashion at the moment? NHS and social care managers are also inclined to interfere with openness with patients to protect the market view of their bit of the health service; I suspect this is the main source of the problems over the Care Quality Commission, also in the papers over the last few weeks. It’s not that the people at the top were inherently evil-doers, it’s that in the environment that our politicians have created in which everything, including our health and social care, is bought and sold, the selling bit of the job means that managers have to abandon honest human relationships in favour of brand management. And they’ve learned as part of the influence of private sector management on the public sector this over the past twenty years, so they’ve lost the public ethos of service and concern for patients.

But the real problem with compensation claims for medical negligence is that it deals with a particular kind of medicine, but not the broad care services of which medicine is a part which we have seen in the news lately. What is the point of suing a doctor for compensation if the problem is with the coordination and integration of a whole care service? Nurses and other professionals, including social workers, are involved and all kinds of provision, which are not the subject of a prescription or an operation. One bad thing about this is that it encourages people to see doctors as the people ‘in charge’ who order everyone else around, and the doctors to feel that they are entitled to do that because they are legally responsible if the care goes wrong. This creates the wrong attitudes among some doctors and encourages a handmaiden approach among other professionals rather than multiprofessional teamwork.

What is the role of medical negligence in end-of-life care, for example. Yes, it is possible that the doctor gets their dose of morphine wrong, or a nurse fails to respond to a frustrating patient on the buzzer for the nth time, but the quality of the service mainly depends on a seamless integration of a wide range of helpers mainly in people’s own homes. This may include social work, whose role is particularly undefined and poorly understood by everyone involved, and so therefore not readily liable to some kind of compensation culture. We do need a sensible way of judging whether someone got a good deal for services like these when they are dissatisfied or need compensation. And since hospices are small providers in an increasingly commercialised world, you do wonder whether the new NHS is going to mean that marketing is going to be to the fore and admitting mistakes and improving service quality will fall by the wayside.

And what about the medical care which fails to acknowledge end-of-life care at all? Most people who have worked in hospices have experienced the well-off patient (and occasionally not so well-off) transferred at the last minute from the private hospital whose cancer doctor has been telling them for weeks that the latest (expensively charged-for) procedure is certainly going to cure them, and who then need to get them off the premises quickly before they actually die. I’ve noted before that the caring ads of the private insurers that you see selling their cancer care wares, while increasingly recognising the psychological elements of care that they need to be concerned with, still fail to mention that actually quite a lot of people still die from cancer.