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Thousands of doctors 'negligent'

06 June 2010 - 02:00 By SUBASHNI NAIDOO

Claims against health professionals soar as patients hit back on 'sheer neglect'

Nearly 2000 doctors in public and private healthcare in South Africa are facing claims of negligence.

In the past month alone, four cases of medical negligence have been settled in Johannesburg, with payouts of up to R7-million.

Figures from the Medical Protection Society - which assists doctors with legal matters - reveal its members are facing more than 800 active claims of alleged negligence, with another 1000 complaints still to be assessed.

Most claims relate to botched cosmetic surgery, children born with brain damage, birth defects not diagnosed timeously and Caesarean sections not done when needed.

About 80% of the claims stem from incidents in the public health sector, and as many as 70% of all claims are settled out of court.

Over 18% of claims are worth more than R1-million, an increase of nearly 550% compared with 10 years ago, while the number of claims for over R5-million has increased by 900% in the past decade - with several topping the R30-million mark.

"It's like a time bomb waiting to explode," said medical malpractice attorney Andre Calitz.

"We are seeing a dramatic increase in inquiries each year. The number of cases in our practice has more than doubled over the past five years."

Statistics from the Health Professions Council of South Africa show that 44 doctors have been struck from the roll since 2005 due to unethical and unprofessional conduct.

Between April 2008 and March last year, about 90 doctors were found guilty of medical malpractice, including cases of insufficient care, refusing to treat patients, misdiagnosis, practising outside of scope of competence, overcharging or charging for services not rendered.

The chairman of the South African Medical Association, Dr Norman Mabasa, said South African doctors were overworked which led to an increase in errors.

"The doctor-patient ratio in South Africa is too high. The recommendations by the World Health Organisation is one doctor to a maximum of 1500 people. But in South Africa it's one to 4000," he said.

"Junior doctors are forced to work without supervision and there is serious neglect in terms of nursing care," said Mabasa.

The Medical Protection Society recently set up a free counselling service to provide support to implicated members. The service has assisted more than 40 doctors.

The president of the SA Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, Ronald Bobroff, said a lack of accountability and poor management had given rise to the high number of negligence cases in the private and state sectors.

"It does not take a genius to ensure that staff wash their hands, elevators are maintained and toilets are clean. But unfortunately there is no accountability. It is just sheer neglect," said Bobroff. "There is no longer passion for the profession. Nurses are poorly trained and ill-disciplined and this holds up a mirror to the shocking state of healthcare in the country ... it is scary."

  • naidoosu@sundaytimes.co.za