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Medical negligence body has not met for 5 years

Denis Cusack: A lot of work went into report and it's time it was brought to fruition

An expert group tasked by government with finding an alternative to multimillion-euro medical negligence cases has failed to meet for more than five years.

The "stuck in limbo" nature of the Department of Health’s advisory committee was highlighted by a leading member of the panel, who said the situation is costing the taxpayer millions of euro.

Denis Cusack, professor of forensic and legal medicine at University College Dublin, said the group was set up to examine the feasibility of a no-fault scheme for "birth hypoxia" incidents.

These cases involve children who have suffered severe brain injury during or immediately after birth, and are frequently among the most costly medical-related compensation claims.

The expert panel — which included specialists in the medical, legal, rehabilitation, and obstetrics fields — was established in 2004 and met regularly in its first years.

However, Prof Cusack confirmed it has not met since Apr 2008 when a "comprehensive" report on what changes are needed, including greater transparency from doctors when something goes wrong, was almost complete.

The expert has written repeated letters to Health Minister James Reilly and his predecessor Mary Harney asking for clarity on when the group will be allowed finalise its work.

The last such letter was sent in Apr 2012 and called for the issue to be "earnestly" reviewed.

However, despite official letters stating the matter is "receiving attention", no clarity has been given on the reason for the five-year delay.

"The group was very close to finishing its work. A lot of hard work has gone into the report and it’s time it was brought to fruition," said Prof Cusask.

"Technically that group has not been stood down and we are in limbo. We were very close in terms of drafts of chapters, mainly on medical litigation reform because of the number of claims going up and how the risk management of claims are handled.

"I am very disappointed a work of such importance got so far but has been stuck at this point."

Among the issues the group examined was the possibility of a no-fault compensation system whereby medics would fully disclose all details relating to any error that harmed a patient.

This system, increasingly used in countries such as the US and Australia, has been proven to reduce litigation cases by as much as 40%-50% as patient priority is focused on what happened rather than drawn-out court hearings.

A medical negligence conference in Dublin heard last week that such a system could save the State up to €400m if it were fully implemented.

As reported by the Irish Examiner last week, it is expected to be discussed further during a separate conference in Farmleigh today.

While the €400m figure relates to the wider medical negligence debate, Prof Cusack said the fact birth hypoxia cases are some of the most expensive types of error means the five-year delay in the expert group’s report must receive attention.