The recent increase in medical negligence claims in South Africa

The significant increase in medical negligence claims in South Africa in recent years has had a big impact on the health department’s budget. Doctors have warned that the country’s health system could even collapse, as practising certain specialities of medicine have become too risky and expensive, and many medical malpractice underwriters are questioning the sustainability of their insurance products.

From 2011 to 2016, the number of claims against healthcare professionals in the country rose by 35%, and the value of claims during this period increased by 121%. The Democratic Alliance announced in May that the Gauteng health department had paid out more than R1-billion to settle 185 medical negligence cases since January 2015, and brain-damaged babies made up 76% of the claims.

Outstanding claims against government and provincial hospitals amount to almost R60-billion, and the Eastern Cape Health MEC has argued that it cannot afford to pay out millions in medical negligence cases without affecting its obligation to provide healthcare for its residents. It has been argued that it would be better to spend money on ensuring hospitals provide better quality care, as paying R20-million to one family could prevent many families from having access to healthcare.

The difficulty that health departments face of trying to balance their budget has been highlighted by the case of Dumile Zulu. When Zulu sued the Gauteng health department for the negligence that caused her son’s brain damage‚ the High Court ruled in her favour and it was agreed in 2015 that she should be paid a lump sum of R23-million. However, she became the centre of a complicated legal battle over whether provincial health departments can afford to pay millions in medical negligence claims, and the Gauteng Department of Health asked the High Court‚ then the Supreme Court‚ then the Constitutional Court to change the law regarding pay-outs. The department believes it shouldn’t be expected to pay negligence claims in once-off lump sums‚ as is currently required by law, but instead wants to pay for the child’s medical needs when they arise.

However, although these pay-outs may be crippling for the health department, without rightful compensation many plaintiffs wouldn’t be able to get the appropriate care they need to address the problems that have been caused by negligence. And while pay-outs and future claims are indeed large, no amount of money can arguably compensate for the misery endured as a result of medical neglect. Until the legal case of Dumile Zulu is complete‚ she will not receive the remaining R19-million for her now 14-year-old child’s medical expenses, and the case has arguably prolonged her agony.

Although there are many reasons for the escalation in medical negligence cases in South Africa, it is ultimately an issue that needs to be urgently addressed. MPL Jack Bloom said there is a “long and sad catalogue of injuries” inflicted on patients who depend on public hospitals for care. In an article published on News24 earlier this year, he highlighted that “hospitals should be places where you go to get cured, not for injuries.” South African citizens deserve to know what authorities are planning to do to rectify the current situation.

Public sector cases often deal with poor management at hospitals and a general oversight of clinical care. Medical ethics are now severely under scrutiny, and unskilled and unmotivated nurses are thought to be at the core of many medical malpractice claims. Doctors have also been blamed for “over-servicing” clients by carrying out unnecessary surgery, and the high occurrence of medical negligence is considered to be part of a broader crisis in the health sector. Adequate staffing and equipment should be considered a priority; and better management and accountability is believed to be essential to curb mistakes.

Doctors in most fields can be held responsible for their actions for up to three years after a patient first becomes aware of a problem, and errant doctors should be referred to the Health Professions Council and nurses to the Nursing Council.

A greater consciousness of legal rights is also required to influence changes in the system. If you feel you have been the victim of surgery that has been negligently or unlawfully performed, don’t hesitate to contact Henry Shields Attorneys to seek the advice of an experienced personal injury lawyer.