Martha’s Rule: A Game-Changer for Patient Rights in the NHS

Published on 14 Sep 2023

In a significant development for patient advocacy and safety reform within the NHS, the UK's Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, has announced his support for the introduction of "Martha's Rule."

This proposed rule aims to ensure that hospital patients and their families are aware of their right to seek a second opinion, potentially transforming the way patients engage with their healthcare providers and advocate for their well-being.

The introduction of Martha's Rule comes in response to a heart-breaking case that highlights the critical importance of patient empowerment in the healthcare system. Martha's Rule is named after 13 year old Martha Mills, who tragically passed away after a hospital admission related to a bicycle accident. While Martha's injury - a pancreas injury - was initially deemed survivable, she succumbed to sepsis within days. Martha's mother raised concerns with the medical team regarding her daughter's treatment during her hospital stay, but instead her concerns were dismissed and she was told by doctors that the extensive bleeding was "a normal side effect of the infection" and attributed it to slight clotting issues. Tragically, Martha's condition deteriorated rapidly soon after, and she sadly died. At inquest, a coroner concluded that Martha could have survived with better care.

The King's College Hospital Trust have now admitted that they failed Martha when she needed them the most.

In response to this tragic case, Steve Barclay has expressed his commitment to implementing Martha's Rule swiftly. Mr Barclay has engaged the Patient Safety Commissioner to meet with NHS leaders and gather insights from similar schemes abroad. For example, "Ryan's Rule" was introduced in Queensland, Australia, following the death of a young boy with a poorly managed serious infection, and Ryan's Rule has subsequently improved patient advocacy in healthcare settings.

Mr Barclay acknowledges the need to expedite Martha's Rule's implementation, especially in paediatrics, while emphasising the importance of clear communication to patients.

NHS England medical director, Prof Sir Stephen Powis has stressed the paramount importance of patient and relative voices in healthcare decision-making. While the need for change is evident, he also indicated that different hospitals may require distinct approaches to ensure patient voices are heard effectively.

The introduction of Martha's Rule represents a significant step toward enhancing patient rights and safety within the NHS. It underscores the importance of patient empowerment and the ability to seek a second opinion when medical concerns arise. As this rule progresses, it is expected to play a pivotal role in improving patient care, preventing tragic outcomes like Martha's, and giving patients and their families the confidence to advocate for their health and well-being within the healthcare system.

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