Optimism was in the wind at the AvMA Conference in Bournemouth

by Paul Whiteing, AvMA Chief Executive, March 2023



After just 3 months’ in post as CEO, it was a great pleasure to host and chair AvMA’s 33rd Annual Clinical Negligence Conference in Bournemouth. For readers who have never attended one of these conferences, all I can say is that it is the flagship conference for clinical negligence and patient safety in the UK. Once again, the conference was at full capacity at just under 500 delegates. And with that sort of pulling power, it means that we can attract the best speakers in the field. Doing justice to the speakers’ biographies, without reading them out in full which would have taken far too long, was my first challenge! 

I opened the Conference by talking about some the challenges – as well as the opportunities – that I see across the patient safety and access to justice terrain. I talked about the real challenges and pressures the NHS is under, which are unprecedented in modern times. Combined with evidence that suggests that health inequalities are worsening post-COVID, it is hard to see how the drive for incremental patient safety improvements can hold. But I also pointed to the opportunities. I have been really encouraged and impressed by the people and organisations I have met who are so determined and passionate about continuing to drive positive change and better patient safety outcomes.  

My opening remarks were echoed by the many speakers we had. We heard about some real challenges and how the culture of the NHS is still too quick to jump to blame as compared to the airline industry, which is perceived to be more willing to embrace learning. But we also heard from surgeons about advances in medical procedures, including developments in robotics which, in turn, leads to better outcomes with less room for human error. And we also had more than one speaker give fascinating talks about developments in Human Factors, which I now understand to be those things which can affect an individual’s performance and where there is a growing body of thinking about how to make healthcare safer. There is much that can be learned from the airline industry, and indeed one speaker talked in some detail about the work they have been doing with airline pilots. I think many of us hold up the airline industry as the beacon of safety. But even here, the speaker pointed out that errors are more frequent than we think, and some things can get swept under the carpet. Sound familiar? 

And our final plenary session of the conference focused on the soon-to-be statutory role for the Medical Examiner system. This role, we were told, emerged from the Shipman inquiry and is designed to provide independent scrutiny of deaths and so give people more confidence in the certification of death process. Again, it points to incremental changes which should aid and support improvements to patient safety as well as providing a voice for the bereaved.  

So, I came away from Bournemouth with a strong degree of optimism about what more can be achieved through the fruitful labours of all of those involved and supporting patient safety. Many of the delegates will have been solicitors who specialise in clinical negligence law. You might think that they have much to lose from some of these improvements. But that was not the mood of the delegates. My impression is that of a profession that wants to see a well-resourced and effectively functioning healthcare system and that recognises where things do go wrong, there is fair access to justice to bring a swift remedy and closure for the patient and/or their family and loved ones. The passion for that was loud and clear, and their generosity in supporting and fundraising for AvMA is something I remain thankful for. 

In fact, if there was only one thing I would have changed in Bournemouth, that would have been the weather. There was too little sunshine and too many gusts of winds – how those doing the 5k charity run along the beach survived is beyond me! But that none of them gave up despite the conditions spoke to the delegates wider commitment to AvMA, patient safety and access to justice.