What Is Medical Negligence?

Before now, medical negligence was not a topic of popular discourse in Nigeria. In recent times, however, practising physicians in Nigeria and elsewhere frequently express the opinion that the medical profession is being subjected to increasing criticism by the public. Medical negligence has now become a topical issue in the Nigerian Legal System so one may then ask the question “what is medical negligence”?

What Is Medical Negligence?

It is important to first understand what negligence means, in general. Negligence can be defined as the breach of an existing duty of care and such breach has resulted in an injury to the person to whom the duty of care was owed.

Medical negligence then means the failure, on the part of a medical practitioner to exercise a reasonable degree of skill and care in the treatment of a patient, such that if a doctor treats a patient in a negligent manner causing harm or worsening the existing health condition, the patient can bring an action on negligence against the doctor claiming damages for the harm suffered. An action on medical negligence must be able to prove the following three elements:

  1. The existence of a duty of care
  2. Failure to exercise such duty of care by the medical practitioner
  3. Resultant injury to the patient as a result of the breach of duty

In practical terms, medical negligence can result from a misdiagnosis or even a delayed diagnosis; incorrect treatment; surgical mistakes among others.

Common Types

A wide variety of situations can lead to a medical negligence claim – from a doctor leaving a sponge in a patient’s body during an operation to failing to tell a patient that a prescribed drug might cause heart failure. However, fall into one of these categories:

Failure to diagnose: If a competent doctor would have discovered the patient’s illness or made a different diagnosis, which in turn would have led to a better outcome than the one actually achieved.

Improper treatment: If a doctor treats the patient in a way that no other competent doctor would, the patient could have a medical negligence claim. In a similar vein, it may also be negligent if the doctor selects the appropriate treatment but administers it incompetently.

Failure to warn a patient of known risks: Doctors have a duty to warn patients of known risks of a procedure or course of treatment — this is known as the duty of informed consent. If a patient, was not properly informed of the possible risks and elects to go through with a procedure, the doctor may be liable for medical negligence if the patient is injured by the procedure (in a way that the doctor should have warned could happen).

What To Do

With medical negligence now a topical conversation in Nigeria, these key tips may help doctors avoid medico-legal problems:

  • Communicate: tell the patient about the course of treatment, what it should achieve and what the risks are
  • Document: document the conversation about the course of treatment.
  • Communicate documentation: let the patient know that the conversation about the course of treatment & risks have been documented
  • Preserve documentation: keep the documentation securely.

Yes, yes. That all sounds like a play on words but all the tips are important and adhering to them would go a long way to prevent legal problems.

What do you think about medical negligence? Let us know!


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