By Angelos Anastasiou
DESPITE inherent difficulties in suing for medical negligence, a Larnaca court has ruled that doctors and nursing staff at the town’s general hospital did not exercise due care in diagnosing and treating a woman in 2004, causing her to undergo avoidable leg amputation shortly thereafter.
This has once again brings to the limelight the unspoken rule of medical professionals not being too forthcoming to testify against colleagues, making it extremely rare for such cases as the Larnaca ruling, to come to court, let alone reach the stage of reward for compensation.
The court awarded the woman’s son, who sued the Cyprus Republic over his mother’s treatment by the public healthcare facility’s staff, approximately €100,000 in damages.
According to the ruling, Larnaca General doctors treated the woman’s stroke but were too late to diagnose a leg embolism, despite obvious external markers – her leg had already gone black – and the son alerting the doctors of the issue when the woman was admitted.
But negligence in this case was exhibited not only by doctors, the judge said. In the ruling, he argued that Larnaca General nursing staff also failed to act with due care as the woman developed sores due to insufficient turning and positioning – recommended treatment for immobile patients.
Nurses were also said to have decided that the woman should have been fed orally while comatose, instead of employing the designated nasogastric intubation procedure, which caused her to develop pneumonia as a result of food particles entering the patient’s lungs.
Negligence lawsuits against healthcare professionals rank among the hardest to bring before a court successfully. The unwillingness of many doctors to testify against their defendant colleagues has been widely pointed at as the most common insurmountable problem, by lawyers and healthcare professionals alike.
Dr Marios Philippou heads the Cyprus Medical Council, the state body responsible for accrediting professional medical credentials. He told the Cyprus Mail that doctors are free to offer expert testimony in court if they so choose, and that no such code of silence exists – unofficial or otherwise.
Philippou’s opinion is not shared by many. Maria Constantinidou of the Constantion Criminology and Forensic Research Centre cited recent data collected from a variety of sources, including insurance companies, law offices and proprietary research. The research conclusions, published earlier in the summer, suggest that the most common reason for the failure of such cases to be built successfully lies in the reluctance of doctors to testify against their colleagues.
The research findings appear to be implicitly corroborated by the medical profession’s official representatives. Last June, the Cyprus Medical Association (CyMA) issued a press release making its views on medical negligence public, which it signed off with a plea for doctors to testify in good faith whenever called on.
“We call on doctors, whose primary duty is to serve patients and protect their health, to overcome the valid, legitimate and natural sentiments of collegial solidarity, and testify their expertise honestly, ethically and professionally, where allegations of medical error or negligence are examined,” the statement said.