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Whiplash: the myth that funds a £20bn gravy train

Patrick Collinson in The Guardian


Ten years ago I was in a country lane in Leicestershire, indicating to turn right to go into a hotel for a family event. Seconds later my car was a write-off after a young driver careered round the bend, smashing into the rear of my VW Golf. Fortunately I stepped out uninjured. And from that moment I was pestered, again and again, to make a false whiplash claim.

One of the hotel’s guests was first in. “You’ve got to get down the doctors, tell them your neck is really hurting. You’ll easily get £3,000,” said one (I’m summarising here). But my neck, while a little stiff, wasn’t in pain. Others told me I was mad not to apply. But a decade later there is no evidence the crash caused anything other than a mild sprain that lasted a couple of days. And certainly not deserving of the £3,000-£6,000 that is routinely paid out to “victims” of even the mildest of rear-end shunts.

Now one brave consultant neurosurgeon, who has carried out thousands of operations involving neck and back issues, has declared that whiplash is a myth, nothing more than a multibillion-pound gravy train for lawyers, doctors and the victims suffering from “mainly non-existent injuries”.

In a remarkable piece for the Irish Times, Dr Charles Marks, a lecturer at University College Cork, says the medical profession is as guilty as the lawyers. “For 20 years I wrote medical reports which were economical with the truth … the truth being, there was very little wrong with the vast majority of compensation claimants that I saw. I was moving with the herd.” In Ireland, where payouts have reached levels that even the most avaricious ambulance-chasing lawyer here can only dream of, a doctor can earn as much as £3,000 a week in fees after spending 20 minutes with someone involved in a minor car crash, then writing a largely templated report. “It’s a fee of around €350 and you can easily do 10 a week,” Marks says.

Yet whiplash is “almost impossible to prove”, says Dr Marks, with patients self-diagnosing pain that can never be detected using sophisticated imaging techniques such as MRI and bone scans. “All whiplash is minor. Moderate or permanent whiplash is simply non-existent.”

He cites one study of 40 “demolition derby” drivers in the US who had an average of 1,500 collisions each over a couple of years. Compare that to a mild shunt in slow-moving traffic that, somehow, warrants payouts of thousands. Yet just two of the demolition derby drivers reported post-participation neck pain that lasted more than three months.

Dr Marks adds that in Greece and Lithuania, where there is no expectation of financial gain from whiplash, chronic neck pain following a car crash appears simply not to exist.

But one (British) consultant in Ireland is barely sufficient evidence. So I spoke to another whiplash expert, Dr Stuart Matthews, consultant surgeon in major orthopaedic trauma at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals. He sounded even more dismissive than Dr Marks. “There is not a single test that shows abnormality directly attributable to this condition. Diagnoses are purely on the say-so of the person involved. Many orthopaedic surgeons do not believe it is a genuine condition.”

He says early research that provided medical endorsement for whiplash claims has subsequently been rejected. “It’s the emperor’s new clothes. People just go along with it, there is a bandwagon.”

Neck sprain is genuine, he says, but recovery is relatively quick with little evidence of significant physical injury.

Yet the victims of whiplash receive £2bn a year in payouts, a fair chunk of which goes to personal injury lawyers. That’s £20bn over the past decade, paid for out of galloping increases in car insurance premiums. The forthcoming election means that reforms to whiplash payouts, promised in the prison and courts bill, have been shelved.

A new government, of whatever complexion, should reinstate the reforms – and order a major medical review to determine if we have all been conned for years.

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