It’s time to crack the whip on errant doctors

By Mugambi Nandi


Napoleon Bonaparte once said that doctors will have more lives to answer for in the next world than generals. He was probably right.

A few years ago, when I worked in Kampala, a colleague travelled to the United Kingdom for a fairly routine procedure. In defence of this extravagance, he informed me that he would never entrust his life to a local doctor because the most qualified and famous of them all had been reported as having amputated a patient’s wrong leg.

I did not follow the rest of the story as I was lost in laughter (even though it is not funny at all when it involves your former legs), but I imagine that to correct the error, the right leg had to be amputated too. Talk of buying one and getting one absolutely free!

Years later, but this time in Nairobi, a friend has just returned from India, where he had gone to seek treatment, doubtful of the prescription given by his doctor at one of the premier facilities.

At some point in the recent past, our then ministers for Health and Public Health were both out in the United States for medical attention, a clear case of self-indictment.

As long as the political class can afford to fly out for treatment, you are well advised not to hold your breath about the quality and cost of our medical care.

It is said that to err is human. As doctors are human, it is not unexpected that once in a long while a mistake will be made. Regulatory bodies such as Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board exist in anticipation of such errors.

When a professional man is on a job, the acceptable margin of error is very small. Errors outside that margin are classified as negligence, and are punishable.

I suspect a good number of cases are covered up by those concerned. I also suspect that many victims of medical negligence and their families “accept and move on”, unwilling to engage in activism and the pursuit of compensation that will not restore life or limb.

The frequency of bizarre happenings in hospitals both here and abroad is worrying. Some things medical practitioners have done to their patients qualify for tragi-comedy awards.

Last year CNN ran a feature on a few of such cases. A sample of some of them leaves no doubt that when you sign that consent form (a conspiracy between lawyers and doctors?) you might as well ensure that your will is also valid.

There are many reported cases of patients being mixed up and the wrong patient being treated for the ailment of the other. Next time you are in hospital, ensure that there are no other patients lurking around with a name similar to yours because you might go in for a knee operation and come out with a vasectomy.

Then there is what CNN referred to as “surgical souvenirs”, where surgical equipment is left in the patient. If you have been to a casualty or emergency department of a busy hospital, you will have seen how slowly and casually emergencies are handled. Also quite familiar is the small issue of obscene charges for a minute’s worth of small talk.

If a doctor smiles benignly at you during his ward rounds, urge him to get along. And if you survive the scalpel, notice how your pharmacist uses a calculator to knock off 10 per cent (which often works out to be the whole of 10 shillings) from the price of your prescription drugs.

The time is ripe to demand higher ethical and professional standards from medical practitioners. Their regulatory boards must raise the bar. They must enforce standards and crack the whip on errant practitioners. There are enough horror movies from Hollywood. We do not need any from the medical field.