Shortcomings of Medical Council a matter of life and death
- Watchdog is too slow to investigate complaints and, some would argue, too lenient when doctors are found to be in the wrong
The medical profession is self-regulated and self-disciplined. From time to time, the handling of complaints from the public about doctors raises questions about a sense of urgency and accountability. The death of a 52-year-old patient last Sunday after a plastic surgeon injected her with Botox is a reminder of a case in point. An autopsy has failed to establish the cause of death. Toxicology tests have been ordered.
It has emerged that the council restored the licence of the doctor, now 86, after he had served a five-month suspension imposed by a disciplinary hearing in 2009 for professional misconduct six years before, in 2003. This involved the death of an elderly patient after a liposuction procedure at his clinic. A coroner ruled the death to be the result of misadventure. Now the council faces questions why it allowed the doctor to practise again. He was arrested last Monday, the day after the latest death, for breaching the dangerous drugs ordinance and not keeping a register of drugs held at the clinic.
It is ultimately up to the coroner to rule on the cause of the woman’s death and the connection if any with the Botox treatment. However, the tragedy raises a separate issue of patient safety. Despite the seriousness of the 2009 case, involving resuscitation procedures and sedation safety, the disciplinary hearing did not take place until six years after the liposuction patient’s death. It is debatable whether such delays serve the interests of patient safety. The Medical Council has a history in this regard. Dissatisfaction came to a head four years ago after a couple’s nine-year wait for a disciplinary hearing over the death of their newborn son, which resulted in a two-year ban on an obstetrician. Two years ago, a High Court judge referred to a “protracted and cumbersome process” and a “lamentable state of affairs” in overturning a council decision to dismiss a case against a paediatrician lodged in 2010.
This prompted overdue legislative reforms to the council earlier this year that doubled public representation to eight – though it is still heavily outnumbered by the profession – and shook up complaint investigations and disciplinary hearings. We trust, for the sake of patient safety, they will speed up the investigation of complaints and that it will no longer take so long to complete disciplinary hearings.