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The pitfalls of ovarian cancer clinical negligence claims

View profile for Judith Thomas-Whittingham
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To mark Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, last month, the organisation that represents doctors accused of negligence, the Medical Defence Union (MDU), has carried out research into doctors’ failure to diagnose ovarian cancer in women.

The MDU examined 209 complaints made against doctors involving ovarian cancer between 2002 and 2011. They have found that these 209 complaints have led to 71 clinical negligence claims and of these 8 claims have been settled, 15 are ongoing and the remainder have been discontinued or are out of time.

Theses figures reflect the difficulties of bringing a clinical negligence claim in relation to a doctors’ failure to diagnose ovarian cancer.

The symptoms of ovarian cancer can be very similar to a number of other common medical conditions (for example Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Anaemia) and this can therefore reasonably lead doctors into making a misdiagnosis.

Also, due to the nature of ovarian cancer (as with any other type of cancer), even if the cancer should have been diagnosed earlier, it is not always the case that it would have made a difference to the patient’s treatment or outcome.

So even if a doctor has been negligent, you may be prevented from bringing a claim because you have not suffered an injury as a result (i.e. it has made no difference to your treatment or life expectancy).

Dr Rebecca Wagstaff, NHS Cumbria’s Deputy Director of Public Health, has commented that, ‘The earlier ovarian cancer is diagnosed, the more effective treatment is…four in five women are diagnosed after the cancer has spread from the ovary making treatment more difficult and less successful’.

Approximately 6,800 women develop ovarian cancer every year in the UK and more than 4,400 women will die as a result.

Attempts have already been made to try and improve these statistics. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) published guidelines in April 2011 in order to assist doctors with recognising symptoms of ovarian cancer. These guidelines provide specifically that if a woman is over 50 years old and she reports frequent or persistent symptoms of one of the signs of ovarian cancer (i.e. bloating, feeling full and/or loss of appetite, pelvic or abdominal pain and increased urinary urgency and/or frequency) then she should automatically be referred for further investigations.

Doctors should follow these guidelines and if they don’t then it is highly likely that they would be found to be negligent.

Gilda Witte, Chief Executive of the charity Ovarian Cancer Action, has stated that the ‘Diagnosis of ovarian cancer isn’t great….but the hope is that GP’s knowledge and awareness of the symptoms will gradually improve’.

It is hoped that the MDU’s research, the NICE Guidelines and events such as Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month will increase doctors’ awareness of ovarian cancer and will heighten their diagnostic skills.

If ovarian cancer sufferers obtain the full service and support from their doctors then hopefully the survival statistics can improve dramatically in the future.

By clinical negligence solicitor, Carla Twist