MEDICAL negligence payouts have cost the NHS in Scotland more than £200 million over the past six years, with the cost of hospital blunders set to rise further after a near-20% surge in claims being filed.

Since 2006, the NHS in Scotland has paid £213.3m – an average of £35.6m per year – in damages to patients who have been harmed or relatives who have lost loved ones because of serious errors by medical staff.

The total includes compensation payouts, health boards' defence bills and the cost of reimbursing successful claimants' legal expenses.

However, the true cost will be even higher as NHS Western Isles has not yet responded to The Herald's Freedom of Information request and not all health boards were able to provide figures for their defence and expenses costs.

As some cases can take years to resolve, some of the payouts may relate to pre-2006 negligence incidents.

Separate figures also reveal there was a total of 2507 medical negligence claims lodged against health boards during the six years, becoming consistently higher in recent years.

There were an average of 395 claims a year during 2010/12, compared to an average of 335 a year between 2007/09 – equivalent to an average increase of 18%.

Shadow Health Secretary Jackie Baillie said: "Mistakes are made when staff are asked to do more than resources allow and when time is limited.

"Since 2009, the SNP has axed 2500 nurses and midwives.

"Add to that the target-orientated culture which has just been exposed as [putting] thousands of Scots on hidden waiting lists, and you have a recipe for disaster.

"We need to ensure that, where care goes wrong, lessons are learned.

"But I am concerned that nurses and doctors don't have the ability to whistle-blow with confidence and ensure that incidents are known."

Health boards in Scotland are responsible for meeting medical negligence claims up to £25,000 from their own budgets.

Anything above that limit is reimbursed to health boards from a central fund, known as the Clinical Negligence and Other Risks Indemnity Scheme, which is topped up by annual contributions from each board contingent on their risk assessment.

For claimants, however, pursuing a negligence case can be prohibitive.

To obtain legal aid they must prove severe financial hardship and only claims with a reasonable chance of success, where the end compensation is likely to exceed £10,000, will qualify.

Margaret Watt, chairwoman of the Scotland Patients' Association, said patients taking legal action were just the tip of the iceberg.

She said: "There are so many people who simply can't afford litigation.

"We've had cases where a patient has run up £6000 in legal costs before anything's been resolved, but simply didn't have the kind of money to carry on fighting it.

"These figures are just the tip of the iceberg.

"There's been a lot more of it in recent years, and this last year in particular we have noticed many more people coming to us for help and some of the cases are just horrendous – you don't know how they can actually happen."

Cameron Fyfe, Glasgow-based solicitor specialising in medical negligence cases, said he had also noticed an increase in clients approaching him with potential claims. "It probably is the case that the increased pressures on NHS staff are behind the increase, but people may also be less reluctant to pursue claims whereas in the past it was very taboo – a doctor was like a god," he said.

While the majority of cases filed (16%) related to botched surgery, this was closely followed by serious errors in obstetrics and gynaecology – pointing to medical blunders during pregnancy or childbirth.

These accounted for 15% of cases nationally, but were notably higher in NHS Lanarkshire where almost one in four claims (23%) related to maternity care.

Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said it was vital not to brush off incidents with payouts.

He said: "It's important lessons are learned and there is accountability when such negligence occurs – that is the only way to reduce future incidents.

"Often all a patient wants is a sincere apology, but the complaints process is so complex this can often take years to arrive."

Health Secretary Alex Neil said: "Not all claims made against the boards are successful.

"While the number of cases settled from year to year varies due to claims taking more than one year to conclude, the cost of clinical negligence to the NHS reduced from £60.7m in 2010/11 to less than £30m in 2011/12. It is absolutely essential that, when clinical negligence claims do arise, NHS boards learn from these cases and put steps in place to ensure that there is no repeat in future."