Fine Gael Private Members Motion – Very often medical errors become public knowledge only because of the courage of patients and their next of kin in speaking out.

July 8th, 2010 - Pat Breen

Every time a case of misdiagnosis reaches the public domain or questions are raised in regard to the systemic failures in our health system it should be remembered that behind the headlines there are real headaches for the patients involved and their families. That is the most important thing to remember tonight. Very often medical errors become public knowledge only because of the courage of patients and their next of kin in speaking out. I think of a number of cases in my constituency – of Karl Henry in Ennis who spoke out following the death of his wife, Ann Moriarty, the Kelly family in Kilrush who spoke following the death of Edel, and Rebecca O’Malley, a victim of diagnosis, who continues to give courage and hope to others in a similar situation.

There is no doubt that confidence in the health system has been eroded by the mishandling of errors which, sadly, have cost lives and left people with lifelong scars. The very least these families deserve is to get answers. However, very often the experience of patient is that when they speak out or raise questions they are met with a wall of silence. There must be a sea change in this culture of institutional protection and silence.

Fear of litigation has often been blamed for the failure of the health care system to respond to such mistakes but that is no excuse. According to an article I read recently in the Irish Medical News, the health committee of the UK House of Commons considered introducing a legal duty of candour which would make it legally necessary for the medical profession to admit mistakes to patients or next of kin. There is no such legal structure in Ireland. The Medical Council has recognised that a problem exists and has introduced a guide to professional conduct and ethics which states that doctors should acknowledge their mistakes to patients. This does not go far enough. The lack of facilities and the understaffing of our hospitals have compounded the problem. The management and staff of Ennis General Hospital, for example, have been starved of resources for years. I hope the Minister for Health and Children will now support the hospital’s new manager. I congratulate Frank Keane on his appointment and hope he is given the necessary resources to put into place the facilities that are required in a general hospital.

A case was highlighted recently in the maternity hospital in Limerick in regard to the recent scandals. Since 1999 a majority of County Clare babies are born in County Limerick. The infrastructure at the hospital in Limerick is entirely inadequate to cope with the current situation. The hospital is designed to cater for 3,500 babies a year but last year 5,400 were born there. The Minister, Deputy Harney, has told us on a number of occasions that best international practice recommends that a maternity hospital should be located adjacent to an acute hospital. The intention of the HSE is to relocate the Midwestern Regional Hospital at the acute hospital but there is no funding for this.

When he succeeded in getting agreement on health care reforms in the United States President Barack Obama said that as soon as he signed the Bill the core principle guaranteeing everybody the same basic security in health care was enshrined. Every patient in this country must have basic security when it comes to our health care system. Putting into place a dedicated patient safety authority is the only way forward. Otherwise patients and their families will continue to suffer. As a woman said to me recently, “Our family was handed a death sentence the day my father died because he was misdiagnosed”.

I urge Deputies, of whom there are very few in the Chamber at present, to support the motion and show the same expression of concern for victims of misdiagnosis as they did in recent days in the stag hunting debate.