JEDDAH // Delegates at a national dialogue conference on health care demanded the Saudi government issue a new law to make medical malpractice a criminal offence and called for the establishment of a special court to handle cases.
More than 70 people, including doctors, medical lawyers and healthcare officials from across the kingdom, met last Thursday in Najran and for three days discussed the state of health services, which have become a major public issue, with a large number of doctors recently banned from practising. According to official health records, the ministry of health banned 16,270 doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals because of violations over the last year and discovered that 162 of the 36,125 registered practitioners carried fake medical degrees.
Saudi citizens are also becoming increasingly displeased with healthcare services, according to media reports. Many are unhappy with the quality of care in public hospitals with reports of some patients having to wait three months for an appointment depending on what they are suffering from. The government has allocated 61 billion Saudi riyals (Dh60bn) this year to modernise and expand Saudi Arabia's healthcare system.
Funds have been allocated for the construction of 92 new hospitals, with a capacity of 17,150 beds, along with a number of primary healthcare facilities. Government allocation for health care this year is 17 per cent higher than actual spending in 2009. The quality of health services in the kingdom had also been discussed by the Shoura Council, the kingdom's consultative body, as it is looking for solutions to increase services after the ministry of health announced last year that nearly half a million Saudis do not have access to health care because of a lack of hospitals.
Saudi lawyers have begun pushing for the establishment of a specialised court for medical malpractice cases, as the current system allows the ministry of health to handle all the legal claims against its own doctors. The ministry has a legal committee, which consists of its members and headed by a judge, that handles any medical case. The rulings of the committee can be appealed in an external court, though they rarely are, with lawyers claiming a lack of access to the hearings.
"I think it's time for Saudi Arabia to establish a specialised court to handle all the malpractice cases," said Walid abu al Khair, a Saudi lawyer and human rights activist. "Medical errors are becoming a major threat to the lives of the people and this a violation of the very first human right - the right to live," said Mr abu al Khair, who handles malpractices cases against the ministry. He said that filing a malpractice case against a doctor is rarely worth the effort under the current system, as the legal committee cannot impose any punishment beyond fines. He believes victims must be allowed to file charges in criminal courts.
"It's not fair to let someone who made a vital mistake that killed someone to continue their work after paying a couple of thousand in fines," Mr abu al Khair said. The Jeddah-based lawyer is appealing a ruling made last month in favour of one of his female clients who was compensated with only 140,000 Saudi riyals after enduring three years of legal battles and medical operations after a doctor damaged her uterus.
Mr abu al Khair said that the compensation was too low for a medical error that will prevent his client from ever giving birth. The ministry of health has come under heavy fire from local media over the last three years following an increase in the number of medical malpractice cases. The media, however, was blamed by health minister Abdulla al Rabiah last week for poor accuracy in their reporting of the cases.
The participants in the national dialogue conference, called Health Services: Dialogue Between Society and Health Institutions, on Saturday also emphasised the need for journalists to report medical malpractice incidents objectively and without exaggeration. Samir al Saadi, a Jeddah-based reporter said that journalists should not be blamed for inaccurate coverage as information is limited and officials rarely allow reporters to follow-up many cases.
"I respect al Rabiah and I believe he will improve the situation but blaming the media for inaccuracy is just becoming a cliché that I don't accept any more," he said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org