While the announcement that the Health Professions Council of SA would consider complaints against doctors in the context of the "very challenging" circumstances of COVID-19, and medical-defence organisation Medical Protection has called for a commitment from public prosecutors that they, too, would show restraint on bringing any charges of culpable homicide in relation to patient deaths during this time.
The MPS said in a statement:
The protection organisation for healthcare professionals said in a statement that it welcomed recent guidance from the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) that any complaints against doctors will be reviewed in the context of the extraordinary conditions under which they are working.
However, doctors remain vulnerable to criminal charges and Medical Protection is also seeking a commitment from Public Prosecutors that they too would show restraint on bringing any charges of culpable homicide in relation to patient deaths during this time. Doctors could be asked to work in areas outside their areas of speciality within environments that are very stretched. Doctors faced with a localised outbreak of COVID-19 could also potentially be forced to make heart-rending decisions to withdraw or withhold treatment if the demand for ventilators temporarily exceeds supply.
MPS would like to see the commitment from the regulatory body matched by Public Prosecutors after doctors have expressed concerns about their vulnerability to both criminal and regulatory investigations, following decisions they may have to make in unprecedented circumstances.
The organisation calls on Public Prosecutors to provide urgent assurance to doctors that they would judge any case arising during this time reasonably against the clinical circumstances that doctors are working within.
Dr Graham Howarth, head of Medical Services – Africa for MPS, said: “Healthcare professionals want the very best for their patients and doctors across the country are doing the best they can, in especially challenging circumstances, to ensure patients infected with COVID-19 get the best medical treatment possible.
“Doctors have been contacting MPS raising concerns about the decisions they may have to make in very challenging circumstances and how they can be sure they are acting lawfully.
“It is simply not fair for doctors already under immense pressure to be asked to make difficult treatment decisions based on a hope that the courts or Public Prosecutors will treat them favourably and protect them in the future if their decisions and actions are challenged.
“The overarching approach from both the regulators and the authorities must be restraint.
“Medical Protection urges Public Prosecutors to issue clear and urgent reassurance that they will deal with any charges arising from this crisis reasonably, reassuring doctors that they will be protected so they can make decisions in the interests of their patients.
“With the spread of COVID-19 being better contained in South Africa than it has been elsewhere, now is the time to take action to protect healthcare workers before the pressures continue to grow.
“Hopefully heart-rending decisions about rationing can be avoided by containing the spread of the virus, but we must be prepared. We must provide protection to our frontline healthcare teams to allow them to focus on the care they are currently providing to patients and to make clinical decisions free from the fear of the risk of criminal charges. Now more than ever, doctors need to be able to focus on saving lives, not on avoiding prosecution.”