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Gross negligence manslaughter and doctors: ethical concerns following the case of Dr Bawa-Garba

Abstract

Dr Bawa-Garba, a senior paediatric trainee who had been involved in the care of a child who died shortly after admission to hospital, was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter and subsequently erased from the medical register. We argue that criminalisation of doctors in this way is fraught with ethical tensions at levels of individual blameworthiness, systemic failures, professionalism, patient safety and at the interface of the regulator and doctor. The current response to alleged manslaughter during clinical care is not fit for purpose because of its narrow focus on criminalisation and punishment of individual doctors. The justice system fails to take into account systemic issues in a sufficiently proper and informed way particularly in respect of human factors involved in decision-making. It is easier to convict individual doctors for gross negligence manslaughter than it is to effect legal accountability upon organisations. If educational reflections are used to apportion blame, then this could impact detrimentally on honesty and the duty of candour, with negative implications for patient safety. Regulatory processes should not be deployed without consideration of context. There is an urgent need for a fresh and open evaluation of professional and societal expectations from the regulator that should include positive action as well as those that are proportionately punitive. Justice and patient safety would be served better by more sophisticated contextualisation through an approach that balances accountability in healthcare with failures that can occur within complex systems, and by working to a radical shift towards a just culture.

  • ethics
  • medical error
  • negligence
  • professional misconduct
  • regulation
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