Doctors bear a heavy burden but everyone is entitled to expect that the advice and treatment they give is competent. In one case, a widow whose husband spent years in a zombie-like state after being repeatedly prescribed a powerful psychoactive drug won the right to substantial compensation from a GP.
The man had been suffering from depressive symptoms and chronic fatigue syndrome when he was prescribed the potentially addictive drug. His condition had improved after he was weaned off it, but he ultimately took his own life. His widow sued the GP, who had signed six repeat prescriptions over a period of two and a half years.
The GP accepted that such long-term use of the drug should only have been prescribed under the supervision of a psychiatrist and that regular medication reviews should have been carried out. He should have been warned of the risk of addiction and advised to undergo a structured withdrawal programme when ready.
In ruling on his widow's claim, the High Court found that his suicide was not linked to the medication. However, taking it for such a prolonged period had reduced him to a pitiful state. The drug was ineffective in treating his underlying condition and the repeat prescriptions had resulted in a crippling dependency from which it became far harder for him to withdraw.
His widow was awarded damages of £25,000 in respect of the pain, suffering and loss of amenity her husband endured during the relevant period. Further sums were awarded in respect of the care she had given him and the treatment costs incurred by the family.