Medical Malpractice In Public Health Emergencies: A Review Of Medical Response To COVID -19 In Nigeria

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The world has not experienced a pandemic with such ravaging effects in the 21st Century as the coronavirus pandemic (COVID -19). Needless to say, the world was caught unawares; every continent recording fatal casualties and deploying their best-known medical expertise to ensure preservation of life and reduced community transmission of the virus.

Medical practitioners are at the frontline of the war against this pandemic and there is the expectation that they will apply their skills and expertise to help contain the spread of the coronavirus as well as help in the treatment of patients who have tested positive. The call to preserve lives is indeed a tall order especially in a situation where there are no vaccines or cures and the resulting complexities from contracting the virus are peculiar in each case. This Article examines whether there are instances when or where medical practitioners and medical institutions can be adjudged as negligent in the prevailing pandemic situation. Is there an overriding allegiance to self-preservation which can displace or override the sworn Hippocratic Oath to uphold ethical standards at all times?

For context, the heartbreaking and emotional story of Bertha Okey whose brother died of tuberculosis and ‘collapsed intestines’ (intussusception) after being rejected by a number of hospitals for the fear of him being a carrier of the coronavirus brings to the fore the question whether medical malpractice can be excused or justified in a pandemic situation as that of COVID-19.

The Duty to Treat

In the early history of Medicine, there was no professional acceptance of a duty to care for contagious patients – infectious risks were not recognized, the profession was not organized, and the public did not expect that obligation from physicians. The debate as to whether medical practitioners have a duty to treat in circumstances of public health emergencies may not have been totally laid to rest but there seems to be the consensus that epidemics place physicians in the situation of caring for patients despite the apparent unquantifiable risk to themselves.  The discussion here focuses on the “duty to treat” as an obligation which must be fulfilled even in a pandemic situation.

What constitutes Medical Malpractice?

Medical malpractice occurs when a hospital, doctor, or other health care professional(s) through a negligent act or omission causes an injury to a patient. Medical malpractice is founded on the principle of negligence in tort which places on every medical practitioner the ‘duty of care’ to avoid foreseeable injury to every patient.  A duty of care is owed wherever in the circumstances it is foreseeable that where care is not exercised, harm will be done.

A duty of care is therefore established when a medical practitioner’s actions or omission fails to meet the appropriate professional standard some of which are set out in such body of ethical rules. The duty of care of medical practitioners in Nigeria is encapsulated in the Code of Medical Ethics 2004, the Medical and Dental Practitioners’ Act, 2004, and also in the Hippocratic Oath. Medical practitioners by the oath are expected to dedicate their lives to the service of humanity, to the health and wellbeing of their patients, the autonomy and dignity of their patients, the utmost respect for human life, and the practice of the profession with conscience and dignity in accordance with good medical practice.

The ‘duty of care’ in a pandemic situation

Having established that medical practitioners have a duty to treat, what does the ‘duty to treat’ entail in the context of the ‘duty of care’ expected of medical practitioners or institutions in a pandemic situation such as COVID-19.

How do we determine the duty of care medical practitioners owe to patients of infectious diseases such as COVID -19 and non COVID-19 patients?  From what laws or regulations do we glean the standard of care we expect from our medical practitioners which can be the basis for assessing whether there has been a breach of that standard of care or not?

Medical professionals remain the vehicle by which laws and policies, processes and systems will be given effect for the prevention and treatment of infectious and communicable diseases present during a public health crisis. The Quarantine Act of 2004, the National Health Act, 2014 and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (NCDC) Act, 2018 are the laws that govern disease detection, prevention, control and surveillance in Nigeria.  The Quarantine Act makes no provisions for the function of medical practitioners in enforcing the laws. The National Health Act however highlights the obligations of health care personnel by stating that they are not to refuse anyone emergency medical treatment for any reason and anyone who does so is guilty of a criminal offence.

The Act also states clearly that every health establishment shall implement measures to minimize disease transmission. Although the National Health Act was not promulgated in contemplation of public health emergencies such as COVID-19, it can be said to have general application which can be extended to cover public health emergencies. The obligation on health institutions to minimize disease transmission can be taken as the duty to prevent disease which is a part of the larger ‘duty to treat’. In giving better definition to the duty to prevent, the NCDC has issued the guidelines and protocols for the prevention, control and surveillance of infectious diseases stating in clear terms what is expected of medical practitioners and institutions and how to alter or suspend their routine practices and create triage stations to better respond to public health emergencies such as COVID-19. These guidelines highlight the need for suspected and confirmed cases to be treated in designated hospitals with effective isolation and protection conditions.

It is commendable that the NCDC has set out robust guidelines but a review of the response of many health institutions in Nigeria does not indicate that these guidelines have been adopted and translated to individual protocols. Health care workers and health institutions must also comply with the NCDC guidelines to avoid being held liable for the breach of such subsidiary legislations.

In the United States, when there is a mass casualty event, hospitals and medical personnel are expected to shift largely from individual patient care to population based care via well planned medical triage. Multiple medical triage protocols are created and the goal of the protocols is to save as many lives as possible with the limited resources available. What is most important is that there is a protocol which guides their action during the mass casualty event. This preparedness in itself amounts to the fulfillment of that duty to prevent which has now been established as a fundamental duty in public health emergency situations. The fact that there is a mass casualty arising from a disaster event or an epidemic as in the case of COVID-19 does not in itself insulate medical practitioners and institutions from claims of malpractice.

In public health emergency situations such as that of COVID -19, the degree to which hospitals have prepared in advance may positively correlate with their ability to effectively respond to the pandemic. Hospitals in Nigeria in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a number of medical responses which calls to question the obligation to ensure there is no breach of the standard of care expected of medical institutions. We will now examine some of these responses.

Rejection of patients

Upon the incidence of the outbreak of the COVID-19 in Nigeria, a number of hospitals have refused to accept patients especially when they present with symptoms which resemble that of COVID-19. The hospitals declined to allow such patients consult with any of their medical practitioners or even get access into the premises. Whilst the hospitals may argue that they declined treatment to preserve the health of their staff and other non-COVID -19 patients in the hospital premises by reducing their exposures, it can also be argued that the asymptomatic/symptomatic patient whom the hospital has refused to treat will transmit the virus to tens of other people. The hospitals in upholding the ethos of preserving life and ensuring treatment can properly connect the patient to officials of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) who will assess the symptoms of the patient and examine whether the patient should be tested or advised to self-quarantine. Rejecting a patient without following the necessary guidelines and protocols is a breach of that minimum duty to prevent the further transmission of the disease. Every hospital should have in place guidelines and protocols for dealing with a varying number of emergency situations which may be presented during this pandemic, whether it’s for COVID-19 patients or other patients. Refusing to give emergency treatment to any patient on the assumption that the patient may be carrying the virus is in contravention of the National Health Act, and by every means a breach of the medical practitioners’ duty of care.

Treatment in isolation centres and designated hospitals

 There is also the ‘duty of care’ owed by the medical practitioner and other health workers to patients being isolated whose COVID-19 status have not been confirmed. The medical practitioners have the duty to ensure that patients in the isolation centres obtain adequate medical treatment and attention. It was reported that in an isolation centre in Jigawa, a pregnant woman had a miscarriage and bled to death. This raises numerous questions as to how a pregnant woman had a miscarriage and there was no medical practitioner to attend to her till she died. This is indicative of the pressure that curtailing the pandemic has placed on our health care infrastructure and if caution is not taken, harm and injury will be done to non-covid-19 patients and a floodgate of claims will be instituted against medical practitioners and medical institutions post COVID-19.

Some non-designated hospitals have also taken on the treatment of COVID-19 patients without following the protocols set by the NCDC. At the onset of the outbreak in Nigeria, it was reported that most of the deaths occurred in private hospitals which solely administered treatment. Some hospitals may have considered the pecuniary gain over and above such other important considerations such as the risk of facilitating the transmission of the virus to other patients in the hospitals especially those who have underlying conditions and who are more likely to contract the virus. The protocol of the NCDC is to administer treatment to persons with the COVID-19 in isolation centres and designated hospitals and medical practitioners and health institutions must comply with that regulation in fulfillment of their duty to prevent. For non-designated hospitals, this duty will involve redirecting COVID-19             patients to the NCDC and putting in place adequate reporting systems which will ensure the NCDC can follow up with such patients.

Duty of care of medical volunteers

Medical Practitioners who volunteer their skills and expertise can equally take actions or have omissions which can amount to medical malpractice in a public health emergency crisis for breach or deviation from statutory, regulatory, or health emergency policies. Preparing a volunteer for his or her role in a public emergency situation reduces the incidence of liability against the volunteer and against the institution which may have engaged the volunteer. Ensuring there is a screening and credentialing process is key to the selection process of volunteers. Quick training on protocols and response methods put in place to treat COVID-19 patients and to prevent transmission is also very important. Expatriate Medical practitioners who have been deployed from other countries and have been given the limited license to practice in the host country can be liable for breach of a duty of care.  In April, an 18-member Chinese medical team arrived in Nigeria to assist the Nigerian government in its fight against COVID-19. It has been said that the Chinese team will only give medical advice in controlling the pandemic. In a situation where such medical advice amounts to harm or injury being done to COVID -19 patients, a claim for medical malpractice can be established. The status of the expatriates as imported expertise or humanitarian doctors will not absolve them of the responsibility to exercise due care.

 Use of Telemedicine

Telemedicine is the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology. The question the use of telemedicine poses is whether a claim for malpractice can arise from the treatment proffered to a patient from a diagnosis using telemedicine where there is an injury/death arising from such diagnosis/treatment. The use of telemedicine will not alter the standard of care expected from a medical practitioner and will not fall within the scope of “emergency” standard of care which assumes that treatment prioritization and allocation of scarce resources overrides any traditional protocols required in attending to a patient. The professional standards have by the codes of professional conduct clearly set the protocols for attending to a patient which includes, testing, diagnosing and treatment and the fact that there is a prevalent public health emergency situation will not absolve any medical practitioner from the standard duty of care owed to that patient on the other side of the technological device requesting for medical advice. Issues such as confidentiality, professional competence, legal and registration status of the specia1ist being consulted, equipment reliability, sustainable continuity of patient management and timely referral of patient are potential medico-legal pitfalls which can be created by the use of telemedicine. It is important that medical practitioners and institutions put in place risk mitigating mechanisms in their use of telemedicine which by all standards do not meet the required protocols for treatment. Otherwise a flood of claims can arise from such use of technology.  For the use of telemedicine, it may be preferable to use such documents such as informed consent documents which will detail the impracticality of providing medical services in a public health emergency situation and that the patient gives his consent to the consultation, diagnosis and recommended treatment enabled by technology. In such circumstance the duty of care owed is the duty to preserve life in spite of the impracticality to physically see the medical practitioner.

Conclusion

There is an established duty of care to all patients and there is no gainsaying the fact that even in public health emergency situations such as the COVID -19, that duty of care can be interpreted to mean the duty to prevent the transmission of a deadly disease. The upsurge in demand for health services in a pandemic situation will also not excuse or justify the breach of the duty of care medical practitioners have to all patients. Although the threshold for determining the duty of care which medical practitioners have towards their patients may vary in every circumstance, the chances of success of a claim against medical malpractice can be increased when it is supported by the enforcement of such constitutional rights as the right to life, the right to health, and the right not to be discriminated against.

There will be those situations where harm or injury may occur even where the medical professional has acted in his best judgment. It is for such occurrences that it is equally important that medical institutions takeout malpractice insurance to indemnify them against any liabilities arising from malpractice claims.

One is not oblivious of the fact that the inadequate health infrastructure in Nigeria many times can limit the ability of the medical practitioner or institution to respond quickly and efficiently to emergency situations. It is for this reason many hospitals and health institutions can collaborate, re-organize or restructure their operations to enlarge their capacity to create triage stations, better maximize minimal resources by utilizing quick referral protocols and put in place risk management mechanisms in order to better respond to emergency situations.

As the world begins to evolve out of the devastating effects of COVID-19, the woes of the pandemic will soon become fleeting swipes of our recollection, but the sacrifices of our medical professionals who stand as our frontline heroes remain indelible marks in our hearts.

Medical practitioners must however remember that the possibility of an allegation of malpractice remains even in a pandemic situation and they must act with the consciousness of the duty of care they have as we fight this unprecedented war to the end.

 


Tomilola Tobun, Temidayo Adewoye and Ibidoyin Aina are with the law  firm, Perchstone & Graeys.

 

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