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Spinal cord injuries: what rights do patients have to accessing new technologies?

Three weeks ago, the news broke of a tetraplegic man being able to feed himself for the first time in 8 years using ‘thought control’ via a neuroprosthetic device. Clearly this represents quite a technological breakthrough for medical science.

However such stories are often sensationalised as potential “cures” in the mainstream media and, as such, are met with caution by many in the spinal cord injured community. While a healthy skepticism can be useful in this regard, it is only natural to want to benefit from any advancements which might improve quality of life.

As a lawyer specialising in spinal cord injury claims, I see it as my role to, so far as possible, put my clients back in the position they were in prior to their injury. The only way this can happen is by helping them obtain compensation to meet their care needs and obtain specialised equipment to minimise the effects of their injury. This is the crux of any compensation claim.

When only one person benefits, when does it become acceptable to include the costs of participating in these innovative studies within a compensation claim?

There are three main issues:

  1. Whether the person affected wants to participate and claim the cost of doing so within any claim they may have, taking into account all options available.
  1. Gaining access to the treatment and or technological innovation can be purely based on luck. At the early stages, very few people would benefit but as it starts to form part of patient rehabilitation it may become easier to access. But you need those willing to participate in the first instance to get to that point.
  1. Whether there is a health or psychological benefit to the individual, such as improved upper limb function or therapeutic walking; an improvement of bladder and bowel function; reduced neuropathic pain, and or increased independence.

The crude fact of the matter is that you need to spend money on getting the treatment in order to prove the need and benefit. It is justification in retrospect. There is no guarantee that this would be recoverable within a claim until the treatment has been undertaken and the (possible) benefits demonstrated and maintained.

With technology developing at a rate of knots, it can be a struggle for the health service to keep up – especially when so many of these medical innovations are so costly. But shouldn’t patients have access to ground-breaking treatments if it can revolutionise their lives?

Those that do want to investigate pioneering treatments should not be deprived of the opportunity. Only in so doing will such treatments becoming more available and affordable. This may then lead to a reduction in the overall cost of caring for people with a spinal cord injury. Either way, the injured person cannot and should not be criticised for exploring their options.

Experts in Spinal Cord Rehabilitation generally suggest £25,000 be claimed for any possible future technological advances. However, if your case settled a week before Exoskeletons first came onto the market, this would not have cut it; the cheapest retails at £40,000.

We have to draw the line somewhere. But the amount of compensation received is almost never enough to cover the cost of what is available now, let alone what may be available in the future.

Many people with spinal cord injuries will view this breakthrough with caution, like me. But it isn’t all or nothing. You can accept your injury and still want access to cutting-edge equipment that enables independence.

Raquel Siganporia is partner and head of Bolt Burdon Kemp’s Spinal Injury Department.

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