Title Comment in The Times: Covid-19 pandemic highlights need for reform of the medical legal system Media name/outlet The Times Country/Territory United Kingdom Date 10/12/20 Description Healthcare professionals have been assigned to new clinical areas, working in unfamiliar surroundings, whilst, at the same time, coping with an unprecedented workload, pressure on limited hospital resources, and, initially, an overall lack of knowledge about the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself.
This has led to concerns that there may be an increase in complaints about treatment provided in these circumstances, and competing arguments on how these should be handled by criminal, civil and regulatory law.
There has been a call on the UK Government for healthcare professionals to be granted temporary immunity from civil and criminal liability for the duration of the pandemic, as has been enacted in New York state through emergency legislation.
However, temporary immunity is not a suitable solution. Covid-19 is not the genesis of the issue; it has only brought to light longstanding problems in the medicolegal system.
Clinical negligence claims are a professional, financial, emotional and administrative burden on the healthcare system, as well as distressing for patients and their families. A restorative approach, which holds people accountable by looking forward at what must be done to repair, heal and prevent recurrences would be more appropriate, shifting from a culture of blame to one of learning.
If healthcare professionals do not feel that they are working in a supportive environment or, worse still, are operating in a climate of fear about the repercussions of their work during the pandemic, not only will they suffer, but ultimately it will have a knock-on effect on patient care.
A further concern is the potential for ethnic minority healthcare professionals to be ‘double hit’ by Covid-19; on the one hand, it is now well established that they are subjected to disproportionate personal medical risks, while on the other, they may be at greater legal risk as well in their frontline work.
The recognition that ethnic minority healthcare professionals are over-represented in claims of clinical negligence and complaints to the General Medical Council means that the situation, especially in the context of the pandemic, must be carefully monitored and mitigated against at all levels in the healthcare system. However, limiting access to redress would also affect ethnic minority patients, who likewise have been disproportionately affected by the virus.
Ministers must urgently facilitate an independent public enquiry to address the persistent medicolegal issues revealed by the virus. We must promote a just culture of learning that supports the needs of both doctors and patients. The fragility of these roles has been laid bare by the pandemic, where caregivers have become patients and members of the public have stepped up to support the delivery of NHS services.
We need a system that is flexible, inclusive and properly monitored to drive change.
Persons Arpan Mehta