The Medical Protection Society has called on the Government to introduce emergency legislation to protect doctors at risk of legal challenge when treating COVID-19 patients.
The Medical Protection Society said the emergency legislation is necessary to protect doctors and other healthcare professionals and the clinical decisions they make during the coronavirus crisis. Similar legislation to protect medical practitioners has already been introduced in the states.
The Society expressed concerns about the vulnerability of healthcare professionals to criminal and regulatory investigations following decisions they may have to make in terms of when emergency treatment can be withheld or withdrawn.
The organisation said:
“…decisions on whether to administer or withdraw life prolonging treatments have long been made on a basis of what is in the best interest of the patient, but that normal decision-making processes will be put under enormous strain during a pandemic, especially when surges in demand temporarily exceed supply.
“In everyday practice doctors make triaging decisions in the best interests of the patient in front of them, based upon the benefits and limitations of different treatment options. This pandemic however has the potential to ask doctors to also consider factors such as the availability and capacity of current resource when making decisions which would otherwise be purely clinical.
“Concerns have been raised about the current lack of clarity as to whether it would be lawful for a ventilator to be withheld or removed from one patient in order to sustain the life of another, and if so under what conditions.
“In these types of circumstances there are, for obvious reasons, significant legal problems which could leave individual clinicians vulnerable.”
The Society said “These protections would need to cover two main areas: making decisions about when treatment can be withheld, for example referring and admitting patients to hospital or putting patients onto ventilation, and when treatment can be withdrawn.”
Stephen McCaffrey: It is clear that the current pandemic is unlike anything most medical practitioners would have seen during the careers in clinical care. Whilst the UK’s main healthcare regulators have openly stated that the unique circumstances presented by the pandemic will be fully taken into consideration in all fitness to practise proceedings, there is, to date no litigation on the issue to use as a measure which leaves the doors open to legal action against clinical practitioners.
The assurances given by the healthcare regulators will give health can care practitioners some comfort however the implementation of legislation will go much further.
One word of caution though, it is unlikely that any legislation will provide a blanket exemption from prosecution. There might be cases where clinical decisions were negligent and this might give rise to legitimate legal recourse. However, these would be in the minority of cases.