What actually is indemnity? Medico-legal adviser Kathryn Leask explores six common myths and explains when and how the MDU can help you.

You may have heard the word ‘indemnity’ being used throughout medical school and felt it wasn’t something you needed to worry about until your foundation years.

Unfortunately, incidents can happen at any time throughout your medical career, which can lead to more serious issues such as fitness to practise (FTP) or disciplinary investigations involving your medical school or the GMC.

That’s why understanding what indemnity is (and what it’s not) and having support from your medical defence organisation (MDO) can go a long way to quelling anxiety if you ever find yourself in a situation involving a claim, complaint or investigation.

Here, we explain what indemnity is and bust a few common myths to help you understand what you need to know.

What is indemnity?

‘Indemnity’ is the term for the financial support a doctor or other professional who is sued receives to defend a clinical negligence claim and, if required, compensate the patient.

Some cases can amount to millions of pounds, and even when a claim is successfully defended, the legal costs can be substantial.

Doctors practising in the UK are required (by law and GMC guidance) to have adequate financial support in place, such as indemnity, to deal with any clinical negligence claim.

Although doctors can utilise NHS indemnity for clinical negligence claims that come from NHS work, being a member of a defence organisation such as the Medical Defence Union (MDU) is an additional safety net and offers further reassurance. 

We can fill the gaps left by indemnity from NHS bodies, which could mean providing indemnity for claims arising from fee-paying and private work in the UK, charitable work and for electives. You just have to let us know about any additional work you take on outside of the NHS so we can make sure your membership subscription is kept up to date.

All MDU members also have indemnity for clinical negligence claims arising from good Samaritan acts anywhere in the world (not covered by NHS indemnity). 

Read more about why NHS indemnity isn’t enough.

Being an MDU member means you can approach us for support with adverse incidents like complaints, coroner’s cases or fatal accident inquiries and criminal investigations.

Myth one: I don’t need indemnity as a medical student.

As a student, you won’t be expected to treat patients or make independent decisions about care, but you never know when you may find yourself in need of support. Having indemnity in place with a medical defence organisation means access to our medico-legal advice and representation if problems occur during your clinical placements or electives.

You can also contact us for support with FTP investigations during medical school and we can offer advice if, for example, an incident occurs during your training. This could include help with responding to significant incident investigations, complaints and coroners' inquests or fatal accident inquiries.

Myth two: NHS indemnity is enough to cover me.

While NHS indemnity will cover the costs of a clinical negligence claim, you may still benefit from support and advice from your defence organisation. We can explain the process to you, address any concerns you have and help you prepare written reports and statements. Our Peer Support Network also offers ongoing support from doctors who’ve dealt with similar challenges.

As well as NHS claims, there are several other situations where you will need personal indemnity – including Good Samaritan acts and any additional private clinical work. You can read more about why NHS indemnity isn’t enough.

Watch our mythbuster videos

MDU student and foundation liaison manager Rebecca Nelson talks through some of the most common misconceptions around indemnity.

Watch the videos on the MDU's Instagram.

Myth three: The MDU can’t help me while I’m in medical school.

In the last five years we’ve had more than 1,000 calls from students about medico-legal or ethical issues and opened more than 350 case files to provide students with ongoing support. This includes FTP investigations during university or help with medico-legal or ethical concerns, such as situations involving patient confidentiality or consent. 

We can offer advice on what you should expect from your hospital when it comes to disclosing documents and information – for example, if you’re involved in a complaint or asked to write a report for the coroner or procurator fiscal in Scotland.

FTP investigations are stressful and we can help you respond in a way that will demonstrate your professionalism and help to achieve the best outcome for you.  

Having MDU support may be the difference between you being asked to leave the course or being able to continue with your career. 

Having MDU support may be the difference between you being asked to leave the course or being able to continue with your career.

Myth four: I only need to join a defence organisation if I’ve had a complaint or incident and not before.

We’re unlikely to help students or doctors with matters if you weren’t a member at the time of the incident, so it’s important to join your defence organisation before a complaint or incident occurs.

It’s also important that you tell us about the nature of your practice or any change in your circumstances that may have a bearing on your professional practice, so your subscription is kept up to date.

Myth five: I only need to contact my defence organisation when I’m in trouble.

We always encourage members to contact us if they have concerns or become involved in an incident where they want advice and support. For instance, you can contact us to make sure the action you intend to take is appropriate. 

Our website also provides general guidance about dilemmas in practice such as disclosing patient information without their consent, as well as advice in our student journal on what to do if a patient is refusing treatment or dealing with an angry patient.

As well as access to our resources, we can provide tailored advice to your specific situation. Our advisers can help explain your professional obligations with regards to the law and relevant GMC guidance.

To get in touch with us, contact us by phone or email between 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday to speak to a medico-legal adviser. If you have an urgent matter, you can also contact our adviceline 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year.

Myth six: The MDU can’t help me once I’ve moved to a different defence organisation, stopped practising or taken a break.

We offer student member benefits on an 'occurrence basis'. This simply means you can ask for our assistance as long as you were a member at the time of the incident, regardless of whether you move abroad, stop practising or are on a break.

What makes the MDU special? 

We’re a mutual, not-for-profit medical defence organisation – which means we're funded by members for the benefit of all members. We're led and staffed by doctors and we're the only MDO with a doctor as a CEO.

That means when you pick up the phone to call for advice, you’ll be speaking with a doctor who's been in your shoes and can understand the problem you’re facing, no matter how big or small.

Every medic has felt overwhelmed at times, and our team of medico-legal advisers are here to clarify things for you, and help you, in the best way possible.

Remember, student membership is free with the MDU. Benefits include:

  • advice and support on medico-legal issues throughout your training
  • a dedicated MDU liaison manager to help with any questions around your membership
  • study tips and discounts on revision courses and books
  • access to the Synap revision platform
  • indemnity and advice for electives and clinical attachments
  • event sponsorship.

Join as a foundation doctor 

FY1 membership is just £10 and if you plan to qualify in the next 12 months, you can receive a free gift when you apply. Choose from either:

  • Oxford Handbook for the Foundation Programme
  • Oxford Handbooks Clinical Tutor Study Cards – Medicine
  • Pocket Prescriber.

Half of your £10 subscription will also be donated to charities offering support to medics in need.

Find out more about joining the MDU as a student or foundation doctor.

This page was correct at publication on 24/05/2022. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.