The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has expressed alarm at the number of medico-legal claims brought against the Limpopo Department of Health which amounts to a staggering R14 billion.

Although worried, the human rights watchdog is hardly surprised since these claims have been piling up since 2014.

Victor Mavhidula, SAHRC Limpopo provincial manager, said concerned patients and families continue to report cases of medical negligence.

Medical negligence cases soar

“Over the past years, we have investigated several cases relating to medical negligence against the Limpopo provincial health department. They include cases of women who gave birth outside health facilities after being denied entry. We often refer such cases to the department of health for them to conduct internal investigations,” said Mavhidula.

“But as the SAHRC, we are very concerned about the number of medicolegal claims.  When we talk about negligence, it means that somebody is not doing his or her job properly. It means that somebody is either not paying attention or assisting the patients in a manner that is in line with human rights or with the bill of rights,” he added. 

Section 27 of the Constitution states that everyone has the right to have access to health care services and no one may be refused emergency medical treatment.

Bad attitudes a major problem

Mavhidula said that the bad attitudes of healthcare workers in Limpopo are a challenge patients face on a daily basis.

“Some of them are problematic. It is very disturbing to see a head of a medical institution who has no clue about human rights. You have to ask yourself – how did that person get such a high position? Because they clearly don’t understand that basic health services or healthcare are a right and not a privilege,” he said. 

Department hits back

Neil Shikwambana, Limpopo department of health spokesperson, said the medico-legal claims date back to the 2014/2015 financial year. He added that most of these cases are subject to investigations and are yet to reach the courts. 

“The R14 billion is not money that the department is going to pay. It is money which is being claimed, an amount which has accumulated since 2014,” explained Shikwambana.

He added: “All these matters must still be validated. The majority of the cases won’t make it to court, and if they do, they’ll be thrown out. You’ll find that even with the claims that are genuine, some of them are inflated. For example, someone who is supposed to claim for a million will claim for a hundred million. These issues aren’t limited to Limpopo, it’s happening across South Africa.”

Shikwambana also stated that some of the claims are fabricated by individuals looking to make a quick buck from the government.

“It’s a challenge all over, probably because you can’t control what people are being advised by their lawyers. But, what we can control is the amount of money we can pay by working hard to close all the loopholes in these cases,” said Shikwambana.

Cerebral palsy cases

He confirmed that most of the medico-legal claims lodged in the province relate to children who are born with cerebral palsy.

“If you look at medico-legal patterns, it’s the same everywhere. The easiest target is often children who are born with cerebral palsy. Once a child is born with cerebral palsy, people always lodge a claim. They often don’t consider the cause of the condition – there are many which can result in the condition, not only the quality of healthcare,” said Shikwambana.

“People mustn’t think that all maternal issues stem from the quality of care. Of course, there are issues involving human error, but some cases are fabricated.”

Foster Mohale, Spokesperson for the National Department of Health, was unable to provide national figures for medico-legal claims.

Harmful health care

In September 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO), stated that millions of patients are harmed each year due to unsafe health care. Up to 2.6 million deaths occur annually in low-and middle-income countries, most of them avoidable. 

WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said a blame-free environment must be created where health workers are empowered and trained to reduce errors. 

“No one should be harmed while receiving health care. And yet globally, at least 5 patients die every minute because of unsafe care. We need a patient safety culture that promotes partnerships with patients, encourages reporting and learning from errors,” said Ghebreyesus. – Health-e News 

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