Jeanette Whyman is head of medical negligence with Wright Hassall. Having worked previously for Hospital Trusts, Jeanette has extensive knowledge of hospital practices and procedures. She has a particular interest in NHS compensation and neurological and obstetric claims
How did you find your way into medical negligence work?
When I started out as a solicitor medical negligence wasn’t recognised as an area of specialism in its own right, it was bundled together under the personal injury umbrella.
Whilst working on more general litigation I became aware of an anaesthetic awareness case that the firm was being asked to look at. When I heard the details of the client’s ordeal (where she had been aware throughout her surgery but couldn’t communicate) I decided that was an area of law I wanted to concentrate on.
I moved from Nottingham and worked for West Midlands Health (as it was then known) defending hospital trusts against negligence claims.
Although I sometimes struggle with the gruesome and harrowing aspects of understanding a client’s case and the ordeal that they have endured, as a people person I like to know I have helped my clients in some small way to come to terms with what has happened to them.
Do you think NHS procedures and practices are leading to too many over-worked medical professionals? Or are there other reasons for the rise in medical negligence cases?
My previous role has given me a good insight into the policies and procedures and the ways in which hospitals and the NHS operate, in particular the way the NHS litigation authority works.
I believe the rise in medical negligence cases is due to many factors. On the whole, the NHS is an amazing organisation doing an extremely good job with little or no money. However, the public are now more aware of their rights.
They know of previous medical negligence cases due to the amount of press coverage such cases attract and the regular advertising on the television. That, coupled with the pressures on medical professionals, I believe accounts for the overall rise in claims.
What do you believe would help to reduce mistakes made in hospitals?
Human nature means that mistakes will always be made. However, the NHS need to put in place as many safeguards as possible and ensure they learn from their mistakes. A case that makes for harrowing reading but one that has stuck with me throughout my career is that of Wayne Jowett. Wayne, died, aged 18, after leukaemia treatment was wrongly injected into his spine rather than a vein. For almost a month after the mistake Wayne was unconscious, before dying slowly from a creeping paralysis that eventually stopped his heart.
The NHS put in place safeguarding measures to ensure such a tragedy never happened again by making changes to equipment that make it impossible to inject intravenous drugs such as Vincristine into the spine.
What do you make of the Medical Innovation Bill? The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) said it was built on myths. Do you agree?
I agree wholeheartedly with the comments from APIL. On the face of it, it is perfectly understandable why Lord Saatchi has proposed this Bill. He lost his wife in painful circumstances and is strongly of the opinion that the medical profession is shackled by the fear medical negligence claims.
However, if the proposed bill becomes law, it could end up protecting doctors who actively harm patients by going out on a limb to carry out untried and untested remedies – which is the opposite effect of what it is trying to achieve. I feel there is already enough legislation in place and the bill is not needed.
There have been fears expressed that too many solicitors are now trying their hand at clinical negligence and so making some serious blunders. Do you recognise this trend? And what can be done to make sure clients go to the right solicitors?
Sadly, this is a recognised trend and a growing problem. Since the changes in personal injury funding, medical negligence claims are now seen as a more lucrative option. However the mind-set for personal injury and medical negligence is very different, it is very complex area of law so you really do need to see a specialist.
Clients who are seeking medical negligence advice need to do their research; medical negligence should be the primary area of practice for your solicitor. External accreditation, particularly membership of the Law Society Clinical Negligence Panel and APIL, is a useful guide to whether or not a particular solicitor has the necessary experience.
Perhaps of equal importance and something many people don’t consider is you need to have a rapport with your solicitor. By their very nature medical negligence cases tend to be stressful and emotional times in people’s lives so you want to deal with someone who is going to do their very best for you and be able to support you through what can be a very difficult time.
I was genuinely pleased to be described as “first-class and lovely to deal with” by a client I represented. It means I got all elements of my job right, not just the legal side.
The biggest influence on her career
Dr. Michael Powers QC, a very well known barrister in the medical negligence field was an influence on me. He spoke at a course I went to many years ago and said if there was more communication between medical and nursing staff and the patient, then he thought that would see an end to 70% of cases. I think he is right. Many enquiries I get are from people who have been spoken to harshly or have misunderstood the nature of their illness or treatment.
Her favourite film
My colleagues were surprised to hear my favourite film is the original Shrek. It’s the first really sassy film that operated at a dual level, putting quite adult humour to a child’s story, and of course it has a happy ending!
What she would change if she was Chris Grayling for the day
There are so many things I would change. I am a big believer in access to justice; I feel Chris Grayling is dismantling this by changing the funding options available to people. Unfortunately, I think we will be heading back to the pre-Lord Woolf reform days of legal advice only being accessible to certain people.
I think this has come about because David Cameron believes we live in a compensation culture, a view I don’t agree with.