Doctors vulnerable to legal challenge during COVID-19 pandemic, experts warn

Emergency laws should be introduced to protect doctors making difficult decisions about patient care during the coronavirus pandemic, medico-legal experts have warned.

Phone consultation (Photo: Martin Prescott/Getty Images)
Phone consultation (Photo: Martin Prescott/Getty Images)

Doctors and other healthcare workers are vulnerable to criminal and regulatory investigations due to a lack of legal protection put in place by the government during the coronavirus crisis, the Medical Protection Society (MPS) has argued.

GPs are making decisions about when to send patients to hospital for assessment or treatment - and are having to consider the availability and capacity of current resources when making clinical decisions.

But experts say doctors could face 'significant legal problems' if a patient was not referred to hospital and subsequently died. An MPS spokeperson said this was particulalry relevant when GPs were making decisions about referring care home patients to hospital.

Temporary legal protection

MPS medical director Dr Rob Hendry argued that doctors must be provided with temporary legal protections to give them the confidence to make clinical decisions in 'very challenging circumstances'.

He stressed that clinicians could not be asked to make difficult treatment decisions 'based on the hopes that the courts and the GMC would treat them favourably'.

The GMC has said it would take context into account when investigating any complaints about doctors during the pandemic - but the MPS says guarantees must go further.

Healthcare professionals have received a flurry of guidance in recent weeks. The MPS said this had been valuable, but doctors were worried about making some decisions and needed reassurance that they were acting lawfully.

Hospital admission decisions

Dr Hendry said clinicians deserved legal assurances so they could work 'free from the fear of the risk of ciminal charges' during the pandemic, suggesting that protections should cover decisions made about when treatment can be withheld and withdrawn, including hospital admissions.

'Healthcare professionals want the very best for their patients and doctors across the country are doing everything they can to ensure those infected with the virus get the best medical treatment possible,' he said.

'It is simply not fair for doctors already under immense pressure to be asked to make difficult treatment decisions based on a hope that the courts and the GMC will treat them favourably and protect them in the future if their decisions and actions are challenged.

'The government has already shown that it can introduce sweeping new laws very quickly. In the US, New York state has also demonstrated that such changes are possible. Similar laws need to be introduced quickly to protect doctors and other healthcare professionals in the NHS for decisions they make in good faith and in compliance with the relevant local and national guidance,' he added.

Last month the GMC announced that doctors forced to work 'outside their normal scope of practice' during the coronavirus outbreak would have context taken into account if they faced complaints. However, it made clear that doctors were always expected to adhere to GMC principles and guidance.

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