STATUTORY DUTIES OF MEDICAL PRACTITIONERS AND ITS LIMITATIONS DURING AND AFTER COVID-19
In every human society, the role and importance of Medical practitioners cannot be over emphasized. In truth, over the years, they are playing a leading and tremendous roles in safeguarding the healths and wellbeing of people suffering from one illness or the other. Medical practitioners, like any other discipline, are saddled with some recognised duties. These duties, as they are, are obligatorily, and same must be rendered in good faith. Most of these duties are mostly towards their patients, colleagues and to the general public at large.
However, for the purpose of this essay, our focus will be restricted to the duties of Doctors (Health workers and Medical practitioners) towards their patient during this era of Covid-19. In the process of doing this, instances where these duties can be said to have been discharged will be examined as well.
Generally, Doctors owe certain duties towards their patients. These duties as they are, must be treated as fundamental by every Medical Practitioners. Some of these duties are set out in clear terms in the Acts, regulating Medical practitioners in Nigeria. Some of these Acts are:
NATIONAL HEALTH ACT 2014; MEDICAL AND DENTAL PRACTITIONERS ACT, 2004; CODE OF CONDUCT FOR MEDICAL AND DENTAL PRACTITIONERS among others.
In additon to these is the HIPPOCRATIC OATH that embodied those duties which conceptually includes:
1. The principle of Autonomy : This implies that Doctors must respect the autonomy of patients; patients having absolute right and capacity to act and decides for themselves without any influences that may negate the exercise of free will.
2. The principle of Non-maleficence or Primum non nocere (first, do not harm): This principle implies a duty on Doctors not to create or cause to create a harm or injury to a patient either by acts or omissions. This principle posit a duty that a Doctor should not negligently, carelessly, or unreasonably impose harm or risk of harm upon any person. He should provide a standard of care that avoids or minimizes harm or risk of harm to patients. The Hippocratic Oath states: ‘I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing’
3. -The principle of confidentiality:
This implies that Doctors has a compelling duty to keep as a secret information about his patient. Save for certain exceptions, the privacy of a patient should be respected and protected. The Hippocratic Oath states: ‘And whatsoever I shall see or hear in the course of my profession, as well as outside my profession in my intercourse with men, if it be what should not be published abroad, I will never divulge, holding such things to be holy secrets’
See also section 26 NHA, PART D (44), PART A (9F) of CODE OF CONDUCT FOR MEDICAL AND DENTAL PRACTITIONERS.
4. –The principle of Beneficence:
This ordinarily implies that Doctors have a duty to be of benefit to patients and to take positive steps to prevent patients from harm. These duties are rationally believed to be the goals of medicine. Saving and protecting lives, mitigating the sufferings and hardship of patients as well as providing medical care to individuals and the public at large are considered the goal of medicine. ‘For example, the good health of a particular patient is an appropriate goal of medicine, and the prevention of disease through research and the employment of vaccines is the same goal expanded to the population at large.’ (Thomas R. McCormick.)
See also PART A (9A-B) of CODE OF CONDUCT FOR MEDICAL AND DENTAL PRACTITIONERS.
By virtue of sc 20 (1) of NHA, it is evident that a Doctor cannot refuse treating a patient because it is an offence which is punishable by fine or imprisonment or both. Sc 20 (2) NHA.
Therefore, if a patient is brought to a doctor with any problem whatsoever, he must take necessary steps in giving medical care and attention to him efficiently, this is a binding fundamental duty.
However, there are certain instances where a Doctor will not be liable for not treating a patient or his defence in case of Legal Action. These instances includes:
1. Where lives will be endangered: As it is generally known that the most valuable thing to every man is his life. Doctors being humans also has the right to value and protect their lives as they do to patients. For instance, COVID-19 being highly infectious and an angel of death. So, if treating the patient will endanger or make the doctor to lose his life, then he can protect his life first and this right is boldly enshrined is sc 33 CFRN 1999 .
In the same vein, a part of the Hippocratic Oath state that ‘ I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art’ not that I will sacrifice it or throw it away.
2. During this COVID-19 Global pandemic, it is a fundamental duty and core responsibility of the government to provide appropriate necessary facilities and equipments for treating COVID-19 patients. If the government fails to fulfil this duty by providing necessary equipments that will protect and also aid the doctors in treating the infected, doctors may refuse to work in such circumstance.
3. Where a patient conceal his status being infected with the virus and upon questioned by the doctor, he obstinately refuse to disclose his status for any reason whatsoever, if such patent died as a result of that, the doctor cannot be held liable for the patient has the responsibility to disclose to the doctor his health status and since he decided to keep it, the doctor has a duty to respect his autonomy and therefore won’t be liable or responsible in such instance.
Conclusively, though by virtue of sc 20(1) NHA and the Hippocratic Oath sworn to by Doctors and Physicians, it is a profound and fundamental duty of doctors to treat patients to the best of their ability with the sole purpose of saving him and consequently, if the duty is neglected either by act or omission, the doctor may be liable for Malpractice or Negligence as the case may be. However, in the above enumerated instances, doctors will be deemed nonliable.
S.O Osubiyi is a 200L student of faculty of Law, Usman Danfodio University, sokoto, having a keen interest in Litigation; (Medical Law).