Friday, 24 October 2014

Protecting the Doctor-Patient Relationship

This week the media has constantly repeated the claim that the Saatchi Bill "protect doctors from litigation" if they try new treatments for terminally ill patients.

It is true that the bill seeks to protect doctors from being sued in negligence. But the following questions might be asked:

1. When could a doctor be sued in negligence?
     A doctor is negligent if he acts in a way which no responsible body of medical opinion would support or which has no rational basis. 

2.  Who would sue the doctor under the current law?
     Only the patient could sue the doctor, or their family if the patient died.

3.  Why would they sue the doctor?
     A patient can only sue a doctor in negligence if they suffered avoidable harm as a result of his or her treatment. The patient's family can sue if the negligent treatment caused the patient's death.

Responsible doctors who are not negligent or who do not harm or kill their patients do not need protecting. Doctors' representative bodies have told the government that the fear of being sued in negligence does not prevent doctors trying new treatments. Unlicensed drugs are commonly used by doctors. Untested treatments should be used with great care (think of Thalidomide if you wonder why). Provided the doctor is not negligent in using untested treatment, he does not need this bill's protection.

The bill protects doctors who act in a way which no responsible body of medical opinion would support and as a result harm or kill the patient they have treated.

As it happens the bill is not restricted to new treatments, nor to treatments of the terminally ill. It applies to any treatment which departs from the existing range of accepted treatment.

A patient who seeks out new, untested treatment; who fully consents to it, and who is then harmed by it is highly unlikely to sue his or her doctor, and even less likely to succeed in such a claim.

A patient whose doctor suggests to them, or sells to them, an untested treatment, which no responsible doctor would have supported, and which then harms them, is more likely to sue the doctor in negligence. This bill would provide that doctor with a "Saatchi defence".

So, the bill protects negligent doctors, and it removes protection from patients who are harmed by negligent doctors.

The Medical Protection Society has warned that this bill threatens the doctor-patient relationship. It is right.

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