Continuing Medical Education
Malpractice and Medico-Legal Issues
Dr Shima K Gyoh
Chairman, Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria(MDCN).
If the MDCN were not there, the charge of
The Medical and Dental Council exists for the pro- professional misconduct would not be appreciated,
tection of the interest of the patient and for guiding and the mishaps resulting from them would be the
the doctor to provide skilled, safe, appropriate and offence for which the doctor would be charged. For
friendly health care for members of the public that example, if a patient died as a result of the mistakes
need it. Although, the health care team consists of a of the doctor, he would have to face a charge of
variety of important professionals giving investiga- murder or manslaughter. Medicine would become a
tive, dispensary, curative and other ancilliary ser- dangerous profession to practice. By creating the
vices for patient care; the doctor alone has the moral MDCN, it is now possible for doctors themselves
and legal liability and is often sued when any part of to determine whether a particular colleague exer-
that health care goes seriously wrong. Although this cised sufficient skill and care that would be expected
may seem unfair, it is absolutely as it should be. of a competent and caring professional. As they say,
People needing medical attention go to a particular it takes a thief to catch a thief !
health institution in order to see a particular doctor, It is obvious that the aim of creating the
perhaps because of his reputation. There always MDCN is to produce a suitable environment to make
exists an unwritten contract between the doctor and the doctors and dentists self regulate thier profes-
his patient, and this contract is justifiable. It is up to sion. It is given sufficient powers to govern the pro-
the doctor to ensure that he has a good team of fession and to enforce reasonable and acceptable
associate professionals working with him because standards of professional practice and etiquette.
he is legally liable for their errors. The public needs to know whom among the
As the public has become more and more people presenting themselves as doctors and den-
enlightened, the doctor’s involvement with the law tists the MDCN is screened and found competent
has gone beyond the expert witness. He is now be- and safe. The list is published as the Register of doc-
ing increasingly subjected to public accountability tors and dental surgeons. It should be authoritative,
for all aspects of the practice. Complaints often arise, reliable and accessible to the employers of health
and if they are not carefully managed, may go be- professionals and to the general population. In the
yond the health institution to the law courts, or to UK, the Register is produced annually. The MDCN
the Medical and Dental Tribunal, or to both. While has not yet achieved this ideal due to past misman-
lawyers are expected to serve the interest of justice agement. The new management is going to change
from the point of view of their clients, some endeav- that picture within the near future. The Register is
our desperately to serve that interest by capitalizing mentioned because the MDCN has authority only
on any technical legal loophole, which now becomes over registered practitioners. The offences commit-
the issue, while the real issues are relegated to the ted by non-registered practitioners have to be sued
background. The client is served but justice is com- in ordinary courts since it is a criminal offence to
promised from the point of view of society. While practice orthodox medicine without being qualified
the Legal Assessor is there to limit such tendencies and registered practitioners.
on legal aspect, medical professionals in the MDCN
try to limit it on medical iissues.
Being the text of a Lecture delivered at the monthly
Oyo State Branch of the Nigerian Medical Association
All Correspondence to Dr Shima K Gyoh
(NMA) Continuing Medical Education (CME) series
No 111 Captain Dannes Road, held on Tuesday, May 31, 2005 and hosted by the
P.O.Box 333, Gboko, Association of Resident Doctors, University College
Benue State, Nigeria. Hospital, Ibadan, Nigeria
Annals of Ibadan Postgraduate Medicine. Vol.3 No1 June, 2005 9
Malpractice and Medico-Legal Issues
Principles of Good Practice (Ethics) 12. Make sure that your personal beliefs do not
The principles of good practice constitute an un- prejudice your patient’s care.
written contract between clinicians and their patients, 13. Act quickly to protect patients from risk if
and form the basis on which the MDCN expects all you have a good reason to believe that you
registered doctors and dentist to practise. They are or your colleagues may not be fit to prac-
summarized as follows: tice.
1. Make the care of your patient your first con- 14. Avoid abusing your position as a doctor.
cern. 15. Work with colleagues in the way that best
2. Treat every patient politely and consider- serves the patient’s interests. Collaborate
ably. While the doctor retains the right to with persons or other professionals in the
choose his patients except in emergencies, health team in rendering care, but ensure that:
all treatment must be conducted without dis- a. The professionals are competent in
crimination. their fields.
3. Respect patients’ dignity and privacy, and b. They are recognized by their pro-
do not force treatment on an unwilling con- fessionals bodies.
scious patient. c. You do not delegate to anyone pro-
4. Listen to the patients and respect their views. cedures that are the exclusive re-
5. Give patients information in the way they can sponsibility of medically qualified
6. If you get involved in biomedical research d. You retain the absolute authority and
on human beings: take full responsibility for whatever
a. The patient’s informed consent is happens to the patient.
b. It must not involve withholding Right and Responsibilities
effective treatment. · Only a registered practitioner may practice.
c. Your research protocol must be · Other members of the health team must per-
approved by an Ethical Committee. form under the permission and supervision
7. Respect the rights of patients to be fully in- of a doctor or dentist.
volved in decisions about their care. · When an MDCN- registered practitioner is
8. Use only scientifically sound methods, keep- not available, others perform according to
ing your professional knowledge and skills standing orders prepared by the
up to date. Expose unsound practice and supervising doctor or dentist of
practitioners. the institution. If they per- form out-
9. Recognize the limits of your professional side the framework of the standing
competence, consult and/or refer to others orders, then they become liable for the error.
10. Be honest and trustworthy, never certify Professional Misconduct (Infamous Conduct)
what you have not verified, or assist other This is a general term describing a clinician’s avoid-
people by dishonest opinions and prescrip- able act of omission or commission against the prin-
tions. ciples of good practice, with consequences detri-
11. Respect and protect the confidential infor- mental to the patient. The act may be deliberate,
mation of patients. The widespread prac- with some ulterior motive, or more commonly, due
tice of sending entire case notes to the phar- to negligence or carelessness. The term more or less
macy for drugs or the pathology labouratory covers all offences for which clinicians may be charg-
for blood investigations unnecessarily ex- ed before their professional disciplinary tribunal.
poses the confidential information in the case
notes. Appropriate forms exist for these Malpractice
services. A definition can be composed from informatiothe
Annals of Ibadan Postgraduate Medicine. Vol.3 No1 June, 2005 10
Malpractice and Medico-Legal Issues
MDCN pamphlet on “Rules of Professional Con- to make more money by choosing the more expen-
duct” thus: Malpractice is failure, in the practice sive or invasive procedure is malpractice.
of medicine or dentistry, to exercise the skill,
decorum and standards adjudged appropriate Negligence
Our guidelines give a list of what is usually consid-
and acceptable to the generality of the registered
ered to be negligence:
members of the profession and recognized by the 1. Fails to give prompt attention to a patient.
MDCN. 2. Manifests incompetence in clinical assess-
The skills and correct method of practice in ment of patient.
medicine and dentistry are learned by apprentice- 3. Wrong diagnosis in the presence of obvious
ship over 5 to 10 years after graduation. This is clinical presentation.
why the residency programme exists. Graduation 4. Fails to advise a patient on the risks atten-
from a medical or dental college is only an indica- dant on a particular course of management
tion that the new graduate has attained sufficient theo- or operation.
retical knowledge to start training to be a clinician. 5. Makes glaring mistakes.
Only consultants are fully trained. All other profes- 6. By action or omission causes other mem-
sionals are not supposed to work on their own. One bers of the health team under his supervi-
of the most dangerous aspects of clinical training is sion to act to the detriment of the patient.
to be a self-taught practitioner. Unfortunately, our
system promotes being self-taught, for it is the new Self-Advertisement
graduates that are sent to work in remote rural ar- Direct and indirect self-advertisement aimed at at-
eas where they have no senior colleagues or even a tracting patients is forbidden, whether done by the
library to consult. In order to solve unfamiliar prob- doctor or through an agent. Other forbidden actions
lems, they often invent methods that are not in ac- are:
cordance with the safer established standard prac- ( i.) Press announcement of dramatic break-
tice in the profession. We should remember that sci- throughs in treatment.
entific medicine is built on knowledge and skills ac- ( ii.) Professional touting.
quired and improved over the centuries, and passed (iii.) Sign boards that are advertorial rather than
from one generation to another. Many of these skills informative in nature.
and attitudes cannot be found in textbooks.
The greatest weapon against malpractice is Other factors
to be thorough and pay attention to detail. Take a Practitioners can be charged with infamous conduct
complete history, do a complete examination and in a professional respect under the following circum-
base your provisional diagnosis on the evidence be- stances:
fore you. Avoid diagnosis by guesswork and inspi- a. Improper termination of a pregnancy, which
ration. The MDCN has now insisted that every doc- is criminal abortion under the Nigerian law.
tor must own personal basic diagnostic equipment, b. Conviction in a court of law for certain of-
which they should always use during clerking. fences that the MDCN considers to be in-
compatible with the status of a medical or
A concerned practitioner, who devotes one
hundred percent attention to his or her clinical re-
c. Attending to patients while under the influ-
sponsibilities would hardly get involved in malprac- ence of alcohol or drugs. Alcoholism and
tice. The temptation to quickly get away or tally in drug abuse are offences.
order to meet other engagements elsewhere may
cause an otherwise skilled practitioner to take re- Conclusion
grettable decisions. Needless to say, the temptation People who have a true vocation to be doctors de-
rive much pleasure from practicing their
Annals of Ibadan Postgraduate Medicine. Vol.3 No1 June, 2005 11
Malpractice and Medico-Legal Issues
profession, and they thrive under the hard work and If you ever accidentally get into trouble and
have no problem with the regulations. They may are great enough to see your fault, admit it. No one
occasionally fall into temptation and get into trouble, is above making mistakes; the public and the MDCN
perhaps through tiredness and overwork, but they know that. You will do much better than you fear.
admit their mistakes and appear sorry rather than Denial and lies send the wrong signals to everyone.
resort to lies and mobilize their resources and friends Above all, remain understanding and tender to the
for a cover-up. They have a much easier time with injured family. They may be bitter, angry and even
the Medical and Dental Tribunal. The profession of hostile, especially after the loss of a human life, but
medicine may appear glamorous, but it demands you should remain cool and comforting to them.
your soul, and people with a vocation gladly give it. Clinicians should always try to understand things
The greatest weapon against malpractice is from patients’ point of view.
to be thorough and pay attention to detail. You are a
medical detective, trying to discover the crime com-
1. Rules of Professional Conduct for Medical and
mitted by disease. Take a complete history, do
Dental Practitioners.MDCN. 1995.
a complete examination, and base your diagnosis
2. Code of Medical Ethics in Nigeria MDCN; Re-
on the evidence before you.Avoid diagnosis by
vised Edition. 2004.
guesswork and inspiration. If you are too tired or
3. Good Medical Practice. General Medical Coun-
not well enough to do this, pass the patient to a sym-
cil of the UK. 2004.
Annals of Ibadan Postgraduate Medicine. Vol.3 No1 June, 2005 12