In almost every extended family, we hear stories of avoidable deaths and disabilities caused by the negligence of a medical practitioner. The common reaction to these devastating stories are hmmm like it is a moral lesson from a moonlight tale. It is indeed very sad that only a few of these cases in Nigeria get reported and even fewer gets prosecuted. The reality today is that the average Nigerian has only a vague knowledge of the existence and enforceability of the laws governing medical conduct, everyone is willing to leave any mishap in God's hands as they submit to the will of God.
Do we accept every mishap as the will of God? Is it the will of God that little Ese who had a fever, vomiting and shortness of breath was left to die of her pneumonia after being wrongfully diagnosed of a viral flu? Is it the will of God that Eze's right leg was amputated due to a toe fracture left unattended to? Is it the will of God that Amina got a deadly viral infection from the dirty practices of her community’s health center?
This paper seeks to equip the average Nigerian with the requisite information in situations like this.
What is Medical Negligence?
Medical negligence is the fault theory on which most medical malpractice cases hinge. According to the Free Dictionary by Farlex, medical negligence is the improper, unskilled or negligent treatment of a patient by a physician, dentist, nurse, pharmacist or other health care professionals who owed them a duty of care.
The Rules of Professional Conduct for Medical and Dental Practitioners highlights some instances that would amount to negligence in the medical profession. They include:
- failure to attend promptly to a patient in an emergency
- manifestation of incompetence in the assessment of a patient
- making incorrect diagnosis particularly when the clinical features were so glaring that no reasonable skilled practitioner could have failed to notice them
- failure to advice or proffering wrong advice to a patient on the risk involved in a particular operation or course of treatment, when such consent was necessary
- making a mistake in treatment
- failure to refer a patient in good time when such referral was necessary
- failure to follow up or provide aftercare to a patient as often as the medical condition warrants.
Laws Governing Medical Ethics
One would feel that the reason for low medical malpractice reports in Nigeria is the lack of laws but are there really no laws? The answer is a resounding no! There are various laws governing medical practice in Nigeria. They include the Medical and Dental Practitioners Acts (Cap M8), the Rules of Professional Conduct for Medical and Dental Practitioners, as well as some specific enactments like, the Treatment of Gunshot Victims Act, 2017, the National Health Acts, 2014, among others.
Globally, Medical practitioners are governed by the Hippocratic Oath, ethical guidelines which are historically taken by physicians as a pleasure to serve humanity to the best of their ability and without breaching the patients confidentiality. The International Code of Medical Ethics (Declaration of Venice, 1983) is another international code of medical practice.
Legal remedies available to victims of medical negligence
The victim of a medical negligent act or his next friend, where the negligence results in the death of the victim or where the victim is incapable of instituting an action, has the right to bring an action for medical malpractice in the court of law.
Apart from litigation, the option of Alternative Dispute Resolution through arbitration and mediation is also available to victims. Alternative Dispute Resolution greatly reduces costs and problems of a lengthy lawsuit. Settlement is preferable where criminal liability is not involved.
In addition, a complaint can be filed with the Medical and Dental Practitioners Council of Nigeria for appropriate redress. The Medical and Dental Practitioners Acts provides for an Investigation Tribunal and where a prima facie case is established, a Disciplinary Tribunal. Thus, medical Practitioners found guilty of gross negligence may be suspended for a period of six months or their Medical license, withdrawn.
Nations where Medical negligence cases get to Court leave Medical practitioners with no choice but to carefully carry out their tasks with little or no errors. Several years back, a Spanish doctor was sentenced to a year in prison for his role in the death of the former first lady of Nigeria. He was disqualified from practicing for three years and ordered to pay 176,000 pounds in compensation to the victim’s son. With the legal consequence of medical malpractice in mind, practitioners in Nigeria will try as much as possible to avoid negligent acts.
The illness is not the lack of laws, it is ignorance and the only cure is to sensitize Nigerians who are unaware of their rights, rights to ask questions, rights to get second opinions, right to voice out in complaint and seek redress when the need arises. We may not be able to solve all our problems arising from Medical negligence but we can collectively compel medical Practitioners to diligently perform their duty of care, clearing the way for God to come in and heal.
Views & written by Ofure Bethel Inedia