In December 2019, two doctors were arrested on charges of culpable homicide, following the death of a young patient. The doctors were handcuffed together visibly in the presence of waiting media.
This generated an unprecedented level of debate and fear across the healthcare community, and a petition calling for charges to be dropped until a proper investigation has taken place has now been signed by more than 66,000 people.
Graham Howarth, Head of Medical Services, Africa at Medical Protection, said:
“The recent arrest of two doctors on charges of culpable homicide has created real concern amongst healthcare professionals. It is not just the realisation of how vulnerable we are to charges of culpable homicide, which could result in a jail sentence, but also the way these arrests have been handled. The doctors concerned were charged with uncharacteristic haste, suffering the indignity of being handcuffed to one another and simultaneously exposed to the media.
“When things go wrong, doctors can face a loss of reputation, profession and income. In some cases they can also lose their liberty. We understand and share the strength of feeling on this issue, and the support for the Change.org petition
is testament to the sentiments of the profession.
“This was already a tragic case with an apparently healthy young person dying after a routine procedure, and our thoughts are with the family at this extremely difficult time.
“Criminal charges should be reserved for those who have been reckless and where that recklessness is responsible for the patient’s death, or for those very rare individuals who wilfully harm patients.
“Medical Protection will be calling for a review into culpable homicide law and its application in a healthcare setting. As part of this, it is vital to learn from other jurisdictions - for example, in Scotland, where charges are only brought against doctors if an act is proved to be intentional, reckless or grossly careless. This has to be better way to determine the culpability of a doctor in a patient death.
“It is hard to see who benefits from a system that goes against these principles - a family loses a loved one through tragic circumstances, doctors risk losing their career and facing a jail sentence, and fear of personal recrimination becomes increasingly embedded across healthcare.”