Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi must fix the country's health system. That is the message from the legal profession who took exception to his remarks that lawyers are targeting medical practitioners.
He said lawyers leading the litigation against medical practitioners were not doing it for the love of patients.
"They are driven by this pocket-lining phenomenon. They are simply in hospitals because the platform from which they have been lining their pockets, and not that of the wronged patients, has now changed," said Motsoaledi at the medico-legal summit in Pretoria on Tuesday.
The minister went to say that there are four medical specialities that are being targeted for litigation."These are obstetrics and gynaecology, neurosurgery, neonatology, and orthopaedics."
He said the trend was significantly detrimental to the healthcare system because practitioners are now shunning these four medical specialities.
However, lawyers hit back on Wednesday, saying the health department is in an abysmal state.
"The entire system is riddled with corruption and maladministration and he then has the temerity to blame the legal profession for his woes,” said Andre Calitz, chief operating officer for Joseph’s Inc, which is the largest medical malpractice law firm in South Africa.
Calitz said a major problem in the health department is not having a budget for malpractice judgments. He said this meant that funds had to be taken out of the budgets of hospitals and clinics which led to a shortage of money for drugs and other essentials services.
Democratic Alliance health spokesperson, Jack Bloom also took a swipe at Motsoaledi.
He said the minister must focus at fixing the ailing health system, which was in crisis, rather than blame the legal profession.
“Medical malpractice lawyers render an invaluable service, especially to poor people who do not have the resources to pursue legal action against medical professionals who have harmed them."
Bloom said by criticising attorneys, Motsoaledi is also blaming the courts for not acting in an ethical manner because all the cases had been adjudicated by the courts.
“Most personal injury lawyers take on medical malpractice cases on contingency which means that the aggrieved party does not have to pay a cent while law firms have to incur substantial expenses by calling expert witnesses to testify. Payment is only made if the law firm wins the case and the plaintiff is awarded compensation,” Bloom said.
The Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) also voiced concern.
“It cannot be that victims of medical malpractice – who are often the poor and vulnerable – should be expected to have the specialist knowledge, money or power to take on the State through an ‘administrative process’ if they have suffered life-changing and critical damage at the hands of the healthcare system and healthcare practitioners," it said in a statement issued jointly by LSSA co-chairpersons Max Boqwana and Ettienne Barnard on Wednesday.
“Such victims have the right to legal representation and to be compensated fairly for their losses. They must have parity or arms if they are going to challenge the very institutions that caused their loss in the first place. That is the duty of lawyers."
It added that the minister must focus on addressing the dire skills shortages and poor conditions as well as the duty of care owed by healthcare professionals and medical facilities to patients, rather than on removing the right to fair and legitimate compensation from victims of malpractice.
The chairpersons said if there is collusion between medical professionals and legal practitioners then it must be reported to the relevant statutory provincial law society and to the law enforcement agencies.
“If attorneys are found to be overreaching or overcharging, the law societies have assessment committees that investigate the allegations and assess the fees charged. This is regarded as serious misconduct by the profession and by the courts.”