2009 February - Note 5

Supreme Courts comments on medicine and negligence (Dr. Martin F. D’Souza v/s Mohd. Ishfaq)

Supreme Court’s assurance to doctors
“Doctors and nursing homes/hospitals need not be unduly worried about the performance of their functions. The law is a watchdog, and not a bloodhound, and as long as doctors do their duty with reasonable care they will not be held liable even if their treatment was unsuccessful.”

Test of medical negligence
“Where you get a situation which involves the use of some special skill or competence, then the test as to whether there has been negligence or not is not the test of the man on the top of a Clapham omnibus, because he has not got this special skill. The test is the standard of the ordinary skilled man exercising and professing to have that special skill. A man need not possess the highest expert skill..... It is well-established law that it is sufficient if he exercises the ordinary skill of an ordinary competent man exercising that particular art.”

Standard of care
“The practitioner must bring to his task a reasonable degree of skill and knowledge, and must exercise a reasonable degree of care. Neither the very highest nor a very low degree of care and competence, judged in the light of the particular circumstances of each case, is what the law requires, and a person is not liable in negligence because someone else of greater skill and knowledge would have prescribed different treatment or operated in a different way; nor is he guilty of negligence if he has acted in accordance with a practice accepted as proper by a responsible body of medical men skilled in that particular art, even though a  body of adverse opinion also existed among medical men.”

“The standard of care has to be judged in the light of knowledge available at the time of the incident and not at the date of the trial. Also, where the charge of negligence is of failure to use some particular equipment, the charge would fail if the equipment was not generally available at that point of time.”

Error of judgment and negligence
“A medical practitioner is not liable to be held negligent simply because things went wrong from mischance or misadventure or through an error of judgment in choosing one reasonable course of treatment in preference to another.”

“There is a tendency to confuse a reasonable person with an error free person. An error of judgment may or may not be negligent. It depends on the nature of the error.”

Failure of treatment and negligence
“It must be remembered that sometimes despite their best efforts the treatment of a doctor fails. For instance, sometimes despite the best effort of a surgeon, the patient dies. That does not mean that the doctor or the surgeon must be held to be guilty of medical negligence, unless there is some strong evidence to suggest that he is.”

“Simply because a patient has not favourably responded to a treatment given by a doctor or a surgery has failed, the doctor cannot be held straightway liable for medical negligence by applying the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. No sensible professional would intentionally commit an act or omission which would result in harm or injury to the patient since the professional reputation of the professional would be at stake. A single failure may cost him dear in his lapse.”

Difference of opinion and negligence
“Deviation from normal practice is not necessarily evidence of negligence.”

“It is not enough to show that there is a body of competent professional opinion which considers that the decision of the accused professional was a wrong decision, provided there also exists a body of professional opinion, equally competent, which supports the decision as reasonable in the circumstances.”

“In the realm of diagnosis and treatment there is ample scope for genuine difference of opinion and one man clearly is not negligent merely because his conclusion differs from that of other professional men.... The true test for establishing negligence in diagnosis or treatment on the part of a doctor is whether he has been proved to be guilty of such failure as no doctor of ordinary skill would be guilty of if acting with ordinary care.....”

“Different doctors have different approaches, for instance, some have more radical while some have more conservative approaches. All doctors cannot be fitted into a straight-jacketed formula, and cannot be penalized for departing from that formula.”

Risk and negligence
“The doctor is often called upon to adopt a procedure which involves higher element of risk, but which he honestly believes as providing greater chances of success for the patient rather than a procedure involving lesser risk but higher chances of failure. Which course is more appropriate to follow, would depend on the facts and circumstances of a given case but a doctor cannot be penalized if he adopts the former procedure, even if it results in a failure.”

Experimentation by doctors and negligence
“There may be a few cases where an exceptionally brilliant doctor performs an operation or prescribes a treatment which has never been tried before to save the life of a patient when no known method of treatment is available. If the patient dies or suffers some serious harm, should the doctor be held liable? In our opinion he should not. Science advances by experimentation, but experiments sometime end in failure e.g. the operation on the Iranian twin sisters who were joined at the head since birth, or the first heart transplant by Dr. Barnard in South Africa. However, in such cases it is advisable for the doctor to explain the situation to the patient and take his written consent.”

“The higher the acuteness in an emergency and the higher the complication, the more are the chances of error of judgment.”

“A medical practitioner faced with an emergency ordinarily tries his best to redeem the patient out of his suffering. He does not gain anything by acting with negligence or by omitting to do an act.”

Civil negligence and criminal negligence
“To fasten liability in criminal proceedings e.g. under Section 304A IPC the degree of negligence has to be higher than the negligence which is enough to fasten liability in civil proceedings. Thus for civil liability it may be enough for the complainant to prove that the doctor did not exercise reasonable care in accordance with the principles mentioned above, but for convicting a doctor in a criminal case, it must also be proved that this negligence was gross amounting to recklessness.”

Reasons for granting special privileges to doctors
“While doctors who cause death or agony due to medical negligence should certainly be penalized, it must also be remembered that like all professionals doctors too can make errors of judgment but if they are punished for this no doctor can practice his vocation with equanimity. Indiscriminate proceedings and decisions against doctors are counter productive and serve society no good. They inhibit the free exercise of judgment by a professional in a particular situation.”

“If the hands be trembling with the dangling fear of facing a criminal prosecution in the event of failure for whatever reason - whether attributable to himself or not, neither can a surgeon successfully wield his life-saving scalpel to perform an essential surgery, nor can a physician successfully administer the life-saving dose of medicine. Discretion being the better part of valour, a medical professional would feel better advised to leave a terminal patient to his own fate in the case of emergency where the chance of success may be 10% (or so), rather than taking the risk of making a last ditch effort towards saving the subject and facing a criminal prosecution if his effort fails. Such timidity forced upon a doctor would be a disservice to society.”

“It must also be said that frivolous complaints against doctors have increased by leaps and bounds in our country particularly after the medical profession was placed within the purview of the Consumer Protection Act.”

“In the matter of professional liability professions differ from other occupations for the reason that professions operate in spheres where success cannot be achieved in every case and very often success or failure depends upon factors beyond the professional man’s control.”

Difficulties faced by courts in cases of medical negligence
“The law, like medicine, is an inexact science. One cannot predict with certainty an outcome of many cases. It depends on the particular facts and circumstances of the case, and also the personal notions of the Judge concerned who is hearing the case.”

“Judges are not experts in medical science, rather they are lay men. This itself often makes it somewhat difficult for them to decide cases relating to medical negligence. Moreover, Judges have usually to rely on testimonies of other doctors which may not necessarily in all cases be objective, since like in all professions and services, doctors too sometimes have a tendency to support their own colleagues who are charged with medical negligence. The testimony may also be difficult to understand, particularly in complicated medical matters, for a layman in medical matters like a Judge.”

Unfortunate state of affairs in medicine
“It is true that the medical profession has to an extent become commercialized and there are many doctors who depart from their Hippocratic oath for their selfish ends of making money. However, the entire medical fraternity cannot be blamed or branded as lacking in integrity or competence just because of some bad apples.”

“The medical profession is a noble profession and it should not be brought down to the level of a simple business or commerce. The truth of the matter, sadly, is that today in India many doctors (though not all) have become totally money-minded, and have forgotten their Hippocratic oath.”

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