At the end of 2014, we ran a quiz on our website asking members about their perceptions of medico-legal risk. Questions ranged from: at what point in their career could a doctor expect to receive a claim, to how many complaints would be received in a professional lifetime, to whether you can be sued if you have not been negligent.

Happily, a sizeable proportion of the 539 respondents are well aware of the potential risk points of medical practice and scored full marks. Almost 60% correctly said that doctors will receive a patient complaint at least once in their career, however carefully they practise (although 6% thought the answer was about once a month).

Over the last five years, we successfully defended 70% of claims without a financial settlement, and in 2014, 80% of medical claims were repudiated.

Failure to diagnose was identified by 50% of respondents as a factor in a third of complaints notified to the MDU, while just over 43% were right in saying that patient complaints are the most common reason for members to call the MDU.

Eighty per cent knew that a claim can arise at any time and 85% responded that doctors can be sued even if their care was not negligent. Both these factors go to the very heart of the MDU's work on behalf of members. They were the reasons for our foundation back in 1885 when, without indemnity, doctors had to defend themselves from their own pocket. Few could afford to do so.

Two cases, both defensible, inspired the formation of the 'Union', based on a mutual fund, to defend doctors against claims for malpractice. The first, concerning Drs Keates and Bower who practised in Dulwich, saw the two practitioners in court twice - once charged with manslaughter and then facing a civil claim alleging negligence. The claimant was a father whose son died of diphtheria, which he also contracted after the doctors advised him to remove any obstruction in the child's airway by sucking the tracheotomy tube they had inserted.

The second case involved Dr Bradley of Chesterfield. He was wrongly accused of assault by a female patient and, with no one to act in his defence, jailed for two years. Eminent royal physician Sir William Jenner intervened, lobbying the Home Secretary to secure Dr Bradley's release. It was generally believed that the doctor would not have been convicted if 'adequate and available expert evidence' had been entered on his behalf.

Today, the MDU operates on the same principles of defence supported by expert evidence and paid for out of a mutual fund. It is a model that, we believe, provides the greatest benefits for members, not least in protecting your reputation and livelihood. Our records show that we successfully defended 70% of claims for clinical negligence closed between 2003 and 2013. And when our members call for medico-legal assistance, over 95% are connected to an adviser straight away. The rest receive a call back the same day.

Of course, we understand that it is impossible to entirely eliminate risk from medical practice. You can reduce some risks through careful practice, and we provide a wealth of advice on our website on how you can do this. Our advisers are also available to answer your medico-legal questions, which can help you avoid the pitfalls of practice. But should you get into difficulty, you have the assurance of knowing that you have 130 years of experience and expertise to call on.


This article was correct at publication on 27/03/2015. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Dr Christine Tomkins

Chief executive of the MDU

BSc(Hons) MBChB(Hons) DO FRCS FRCOphth MBA FFFLM FRCP

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