Doctors could face jail for ‘wilful neglect’

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David Cameron  gives a speech to The Brookings Institution, 1775 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington DC 20036PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date:Thursday 29th November , 2007.See PA Story. Photo credit should read: Andrew Parsons/PA Wire Under new laws, doctors and nurses who “wilfully neglect” patients could face prison.

New sanctions to be introduced by the Government will make wilful neglect by doctors or nurses a criminal offence in a bid to protect patients in the wake of the Mid-Staffordshire scandal.

The law change, which forms part of the Government’s response to the Francis report, was announced by Prime Minister David Cameron as a means to ensure that “substandard care, cruelty or neglect” would “never again” go unnoticed.

The measure is one of the key recommendations made by Professor Don Berwick to target what he describes as the “couldn’t care less” attitude thought to be responsible for the high number of patient deaths at Stafford General Hospital.

The sanctions will be modelled on those in the Mental Capacity Act of 2005, in which individuals working with mental health patients or children can face fines, five-year imprisonment, or both for wilful neglect.

Reactions from the NHS to the new law changes have been mixed: while patient pressure groups have welcomed the shift to prioritise patient safety, medical professionals are sceptical about the effectiveness of such a threat on minimising neglect.

The BMA suggested that the risk of imprisonment could prevent staff speaking up about colleagues, and criticised what Dr Andrew Collier, co-chairman of the BMA’s junior doctors’ committee, called a “headline-grabbing exercise” that would create a “climate of fear” for health staff.

“[Doctors and nurses] don’t need to be concerned that they may be sent to jail,” he said.”What they need to do is learn from their mistakes and develop their practice.”

Dr Maureen Baker, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, echoed these sentiments, while Peter Carter, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said the law change alone was “not a panacea” and suggested that minimum staffing levels would improve safety standards nationwide.