The NHS is without a doubt the most loved of all British institutions. As a nation, we pride ourselves on the existence of our national health service. Not only do the overwhelming majority of the British public believe that access to free healthcare is a fundamental right, as a nation we also take pride in the quality of healthcare on offer from the NHS.
If, or when, for most of the British public, you find yourself passing through NHS services as a patient, then you will have certain rights including the right to expect your medical treatment to reach a certain minimum standard. The rights afforded to patients who are under the care of the NHS ensure that they receive the best treatment available.
While the vast majority of those who pass through the NHS as patients have a positive experience, there will inevitably be times when individuals and institutions make mistakes. These mistakes will not always amount to medical malpractice. However, some of these breaches in patient care will amount to a case of medical negligence.
The NHS Constitution
The rights of NHS patients are clearly laid out in the NHS Constitution, a document which sets out the ethos and principles that guide the NHS, as well as the core values that it attempts to reinforce. First and foremost, the NHS constitution unequivocally states that the NHS belongs to the people, and that therefore everything it does must be guided by the objective of improving the health and well-being of both individuals and groups.
By establishing the values and principles that are most important to the direction of the NHS, as well as the rights that apply to staff, patients, and the wider public, the NHS pledges to commit itself to ensuring that these rights are maintained and that the safety and wellbeing of staff and patients are therefore also maintained.
The NHS constitution is more than a guiding document as it is in fact backed up by specific legislation. The constitution is therefore considered binding to the “Secretary of State for Health, all NHS bodies, private and public providers of personnel for NHS services”, and any local authority individual or body who is involved in providing public health functions.
The NHS Constitution is revised every 10 years and adjusted if necessary. This review and renewal process is undertaken with input from patients, staff and the general public. Accompanying the constitution is the Handbook to the NHS Constitution, a document which is produced every 3 years, and which sets out the provisions in the constitution in a way that a general reader will understand. These renewal requirements are also legally binding, and the NHS is obligated to carry out this process as a means of guaranteeing that NHS policies and principles are regularly reviewed and amended if needs be.
The effect of having a constitution and requiring that it is regularly reviewed, is that any government or other body who wants to make significant changes to the NHS, its structure, or the way that it operates, will have to engage with patients, staff, and the public and secure their approval for any changes.
Principles That Guide the NHS
The principles which guide the NHS have been derived from, and refined by, the regular renewal and review process outlined above. Many of the principles that guide the NHS seem obvious as they are things that we would naturally expect from any health care system. It is still worth having them formalised in the constitution, and it is still worth patients’ time to read through and understand them.
First and foremost, amongst the guiding principles of the NHS is that it should always be striving to provide a comprehensive service, and this service should be available to all irrespective of any other characteristics such as age, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or anything else. The service that the NHS provides is aimed at improving patient health, preventing health issues before they arise and reacting to any health problems that patients present with.
In order for the NHS to function as intended and to provide the maximum benefits to the general population, it must be able to provide healthcare to every individual and the healthcare received should be given with respect for human rights and equality. Not only does the NHS exist to predict patient’s health, it also has a wider obligation socially to promote equality and to ensure that no patient group is given preferential treatment.
As well as ensuring that the services the NHS offers are available for free, the NHS constitution also stipulates that access to its service is prioritised according to clinical need, and not the ability of an individual to pay for their treatment, nor their membership of a particular social class.
NHS bodies have an obligation to regularly assess and review their procedures and policies. Doing this helps to ensure that the lines of thinking and reasoning which inform NHS policy decisions, both on the local and national level, represent the best that we have to offer in any given area. As well as undertaking these reviews when they are needed, the NHS also needs to strive for professionalism and excellence in everything that they do.
As you would expect, putting the wellbeing of patients ahead of all other considerations is an essential principle for maintaining an organisation like the NHS. In pursuit of this goal, major decisions regarding a patient’s health and their treatment options should be taken in consultation with the patient, their medical team, and any other carers they might have. The NHS has an established procedure for patient feedback and complaints, and individual bodies within the NHS are encouraged to make it as easy as possible for patients to submit any feedback they have.
While the priority of the NHS is always going to be patient care, the rights and wellbeing of NHS patients are considered the most important measure of the service’s success, and as a public body, the NHS has an obligation to offer the best value possible to patients and to the general public.
In cases where an individual who has a duty of care towards a patient who is using NHS services can be shown to have failed in that duty of care, a medical negligence claim can be pursued. Most patients who pass through the NHS will have a positive experience with the service, but no system is perfect. Where issues do occur, these will thankfully rarely amount to negligence. However, if you feel that you might have been on the receiving end of negligence then you should consult with medical negligence solicitors such as The Medical Negligence Experts who are recommended because of their no win no fee policy and advice line (where the first consult is done free of charge). This could be a very big advantage for people who are looking to make a claim but haven’t yet, as they are afraid of losing their money.
Many of the best medical negligence solicitors operate on a ‘no-win no-fee’ basis which means that it will not cost you unless they are able to win the case for you. Try searching online for ‘medical negligence uk’, or ‘medical negligence claims uk’, to get an idea of the different medical negligence lawyers out there.
Any patient who is treated on the NHS is entitled to certain rights, as set out in the NHS constitution. If you have been an NHS patient recently and you think that the treatment you received might constitute medical negligence, then you should consult with a solicitor. It is also worth looking into the NHS complaints procedure.
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