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21 July 2020 | Comment | Article by Ruth Powell

Avoiding or delaying seeking medical assistance during the pandemic

As a lawyer specialising in medical negligence many of my clients are those who have regular contact with the health services.

I’ve had a number of conversations over the last few months with clients who have told me that, understandably, their routine or regular appointments, such as follow-up appointments or routine investigations, have been put on hold or rescheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

I’ve also had conversations with those who have reservations about seeking medical advice from healthcare professionals during the pandemic and who have decided to wait “until it all settles down”. However, this must be carefully balanced against patient safety at all times.

For some, especially those who are usually well, having to seek medical help can be a daunting experience, even in normal times. Now, the fear of contracting Covid-19 in a healthcare setting or simply not wishing to put any further pressure on the NHS, are thought to be other possible reasons to avoid or delay seeking medical assistance.

There have been calls for the public to use the NHS wisely and of course, we all remember the government’s message: “Stay Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives”.

It’s acknowledged that with everyone being urged to stay home, it may be difficult to know where to turn if you become unwell. However, the message is that the NHS is still available to those who need it.

The NHS has issued the following guidance in respect of accessing medical advice, which can be found on their website:

  • For help from a GP – use your GP surgery’s website, use an online service or app, or call the surgery.
  • For urgent medical help – use the NHS 111 online service, or call 111 if you’re unable to get help online.
  • For life-threatening emergencies – call 999 for an ambulance.
  • If you’re advised to go to hospital, it’s important to go.

GP surgeries have restructured in order that they can provide their services in the safest way possible for staff and patients.

If you need to access your GP, further guidance as to how to do so and what to expect is given on the NHS website as follows:

If you need to contact a GP, do not go into the surgery in person. You can:

  • visit the GP surgery’s website, or use an online service to contact your GP
  • call your GP surgery

Your GP surgery will then give you advice about what to do. A phone or video call with a GP, nurse or other healthcare professional may be booked for you. You’ll only be asked to visit the surgery if absolutely necessary. Your GP surgery may be very busy at the moment and you may have to wait longer than usual to speak to someone if it’s not urgent.

The guidance in respect of hospital services in general is as follows.

Some changes have been made to hospital services:

  • your appointment may be cancelled or rescheduled – keep going to any appointments you usually have, unless you’re told not to
  • some appointments may be online, by phone or by video call
  • you may be asked to come to your appointment alone, if you can
  • you must wear something that covers your nose and mouth when you go to a hospital

If you are having surgery or a procedure:

  • you, the people you live with and anyone in your support bubble may need to self-isolate before you go into hospital
  • you may need a test to check if you have coronavirus before you go into hospital

Your hospital will contact you with more information about what you need to do.

The NHS website also provides further guidance in respect of obtaining repeat prescriptions as well as access to dental treatment, sexual health clinics and contraception.

What if you become unwell and need urgent assistance?

There are concerns that some people are avoiding or putting off seeking medical assistance even when they may need emergency treatment. This has lead to clinicians, charities and the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, urging people to continue to use the NHS if needed.

In April 2020, figures released by NHS England suggested that the numbers of patients attending A&E departments in England in March 2020 were significantly reduced when compared to the same time in 2019.

The British Heart Foundation and the Stroke Association have both recently expressed concern around a decrease in numbers of those seeking medical assistance specifically for serious conditions heart attacks or strokes. They are concerned that not receiving appropriate treatment at the right time could result in the patient putting their long term health at risk or even in some cases, death.

Therefore whilst things may not be “business as usual” the advice is clear. Do not avoid or delay seeking medical assistance if you need it, as to do so could put your long term health at risk.

At Hugh James, especially when dealing with clients who very often already have health issues, our primary concern is their wellbeing. For that reason my advice, when discussing this with my own clients, is always for them to seek the help they need and to follow government guidance.

However, in terms of those pursuing a clinical negligence or personal injury claim, there are other factors to be considered in respect of delaying or avoiding medical treatment. This is because claimants who have suffered an injury as a result of negligence have a duty to mitigate their losses. This means that they should take all reasonable steps to aid and/or speed up their recovery. Avoiding or delaying the obtaining of treatment could result in a claimant being criticised by a defendant, resulting in reduced damage. However, this must be carefully balanced against patient safety at all times.

In any event and whatever the circumstances, the health of you and your family must always come first. It is important to seek help if you need it, however worrying, embarrassing or daunting that may be. Having worked with many clients who have ongoing health issues, it’s all too clear that medical problems will not simply go away if left untreated. Fears around Covid-19 should not mean that other health issues can be put on hold for another day.

Therefore, when discussing health matters with our clients here at Hugh James, our advice would always be to seek medical assistance if you need it, whatever the circumstances.

Author bio

Ruth Powell


Ruth is a Partner and Head of our Clinical Negligence Department. She has exclusively practised in clinical negligence since qualifying in 1995 and has a wealth of experience in complex and high value clinical negligence claims.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.


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