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Death by neglect: Lawsuit reveals 'normalization of cruelty' in UK health system

Published time: December 23, 2012 09:11
Edited time: December 23, 2012 13:11
A National Health Service (NHS) sign is seen in the grounds of St Thomas' Hospital, in front of the Houses of Parliament in London (Reuters / Toby Melville)

A National Health Service (NHS) sign is seen in the grounds of St Thomas' Hospital, in front of the Houses of Parliament in London (Reuters / Toby Melville)

A UK hospital has apologized and paid a settlement following a lawsuit that revealed years of grave malpractice. The accounts of negligence included letting a patient starve to death and reports of nurses mocking patients.

UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the British press that he was “disgusted and appalled” by the scandal, which affected over 38 families in the Midlands region of the UK. He stressed that the government was working to ensure that such failings of the National Health System (NHS) are detected more quickly in future.

“The failings we uncovered were appalling – vulnerable patients were left starving and thirsty, with drinks left out of reach, buzzers ignored and people left to sit in their own waste by the very people meant to be caring for them,” said Emma Jones, a lawyer from Leigh Day & Co, who represented victims and families.

A court has ordered the hospital to pay out a total of £410,000 ($663,000) to the plaintiffs.

Alexandra hospital in Redditch, Worcestershire, has not admitted liability for the numerous accounts of malpractice, but has issued apologies to the families whose relatives suffered from neglect. Out of all 38 cases, five patients survived – the rest died in the hospital.

A spokesperson for Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust argued that all of the cases cited were several years old, and that hospital standards have improved since.

"Nevertheless, the Trust accepts that the care afforded to some patients, some years ago – between 2002 and 2009 – fell below the requisite standard, and has apologized for the shortcomings," the spokesperson told Sky News.

Among the cases of abuse detailed in the lawsuit against Alexandra hospital is that of a 35-year-old father who was left to starve, as medical staffers did not know how to fit his feeding tube. Other reports included a patient who was unable to feed himself; according to his daughter’s testimony, nurses taunted him by putting his food just out of reach, and then took it away uneaten.

Plaintiff Kim White alleged that one of the last things her father said to her was “Get me out of this hellhole,” and that he was give no morphine despite being in extreme pain during the final days of his life.

Another plaintiff, a former nurse, languished unattended by hospital staff for 11 weeks, and was given medication so powerful that she was unable to speak.

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'Normalization of cruelty'

The lawsuit has once again drawn attention to the falling standards of the UK NHS, which has been the target of sweeping austerity measures introduced by the country's Conservative-led government.

Health Secretary Hunt described the accounts of neglect as indicative of a policy of “normalization of cruelty” evident in some of the UK’s worst healthcare institutions. Patients often experience “coldness, resentment, indifference” and “contempt” in NHS hospitals, Hunt said.

Charles, Prince of Wales, wrote an article in the Royal Society of Medicine this week appealing to the NHS to offer more compassionate service, something he said was increasingly lacking in Britain's healthcare system.

Prince Charles argued that NHS care should also encompass the "physical and social environment, education, agriculture and architecture.”