Medical negligence claims have increased significantly over the last number of years. The trend is still ongoing and concerns have been raised about the impact of this increase on the medical industry. Medical practitioners are increasingly practising defensive medicine in an attempt to limit the risk of medical negligence claims being instituted against them. Medical negligence claims are instituted for a number of reasons, such as lack of communication between doctor and patient. Birth-related claims are instituted most frequently.
This contribution investigates the possible reasons behind the increase in both the value and the number of medical negligence claims. The focus falls especially on the increase in the number of claims. The contribution considers a decline in the level of professionalism amongst medical practitioners as one reason behind the increase, followed by the possibility that lawyers may be responsible for the increase in claims. In addition, it is pointed out that patients are simply becoming more aware of their rights.
The contribution further focuses on patient-centred legislation and pronouncements by courts that bolster patient autonomy and place patients in an ever stronger position to enforce their rights. Relevant provisions of the Constitution, the National Health Act, the Consumer Protection Act and the Children's Act are singled out for discussion, followed by a brief discussion of case law in line with themes identified in the aforementioned legislation.
The contribution submits that the increase in medical negligence claims should not come as a surprise, considering the high regard that our courts had for patient autonomy even before the enactment of the 1996 Constitution. The Constitution and the above legislation now contain specific rights that patients, including child patients, can enforce. The best interests of the child principle embodied in both the Constitution and the Children's Act is very prominent in the medical context and impacts on the medical practitioner's responsibilities towards a child patient. The Constitutional Court relied on this principle in its recent judgment to the effect that claims for wrongful life (brought by a child with a disability), may possibly have a place in our law. If the claim for wrongful life is eventually confirmed, we will no doubt see a further increase in medical negligence claims.
Patient-centred legislation and pronouncements by our courts that constantly reiterate the importance of patient rights arguably create very fertile ground for medical negligence claims. These are, as the contribution concludes, merely contributing factors to the phenomenon under investigation.