Two junior doctors were left to care for more than 400 patients at Derriford Hospital, Plymouth on a night shift in May 2017, according to an anonymous complaint to Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust Board.

A report on pressures on staffing by the trust concluded “ (We) want it to be noted while having done our best this was a very unsafe shift from the patient perspective.” It added that it took the issues of staffing and doctor recruitment very seriously and was working to improve the situation.

The legal test for medical negligence requires that the standard of care afforded to the patient  should be  merely “satisfactory,” a threshold which is measured by the standard to be expected of a responsible body of similarly qualified and experienced medical practitioners in the same or similar clinical circumstances as those faced by the Claimant.

It would seem reasonable in the Derriford context for any prospective claimant to allege that a junior doctor who was pulled from a breast surgery day job at 11.00am to cover night in the medical directorate could hardly be expected to meet even a “satisfactory” standard of care. The Trust Report states that this unfortunate individual was “told on the phone that the deputy Medical Director had spoken to his consultant and stated that “ I must do this, as there would otherwise only be a single SHO (senior house officer ) looking after all the medical patients in the hospital. Between me and the other SHO on ward cover we were responsible for the care of 436 patients between the two of us, while carrying the crash bleep which covers the whole hospital.

NHS Resolution, which organisation is responsible for settling the rising cost of medical negligence claims, points to spiraling costs in litigation but it is clear that there needs also to be targeted focus on finding solutions to increasing NHS pressures. This is a priority to prevent the inevitable accidents waiting to happen and more claims.

Whilst at the time of writing I have no evidence that any harm arose to any patients as a result of this far less than satisfactory state of affairs at Derriford, it would surely come as no surprise in the circumstances if a catastrophe had occurred affecting a patient, his or her family and the career of a junior doctor placed in an impossible positon?

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