The Legal Responsibilities

The hospital system is the mash up of many different specialties, all with the common goal of patient centred care; people are sick, so they come to hospital to get better.

With these different specialties, comes different responsibilities, and if you overstep your boundaries and encroach onto a different specialty, there are legal liabilities. Hence, a physiotherapists providing medical advice about orthopaedic problems becomes a legal issue.

I understand why there are such legal liabilities, and in fact, I think these boundaries are necessary to protect patients. But having been in the hospital system, I think it can get pretty ridiculous at times. For instance, at the previous hospital I worked at, an ultrasonographer could mark out the level of pleural effusion, but would not mark the spot for fear of legal liabilities should any issues arise if it was drained. Hence the doctor (usually a resident) would need to come and mark the site that the ultrasonagrapher had indicated. So as a result, any issues with a drain insertion would be blamed on the resident, even though it was the ultrasonographer who technically marked out the site.

In a way, I feel that some of these legal responsibilities leads to a decay in upholding good moral standards. The other day I was asked by the nurse to come and console an anxious patient who had her belonging stolen by an outsider. It was a strange request, because what was I supposed to do as a doctor? I felt that a social worker would have been more appropriate. So I arrived and sat at the patient’s bedside, and started listening.

“Ms X, I’m sorry to hear about what happened to you. How are you feeling?”

“I feel terrible. This everything has gone missing including my phone and all my credit cards. I have at least 12 credit cards in my wallet!”

“Ok. Have you started trying to cancel your credit cards yet?”

“I have Westpac here in Australia, and all the others are in England. But I wouldn’t know how to cancel the cards.”

“Ok, maybe I can try and call the Westpac number and we can try and cancel the card.”

I went back to the doctors desk, and asked one of the nurses if social work was doing anything about cancelling the credit cards. Apparently, social work thought it was not their job to cancel credit cards, and declined to help (it was a Sunday anyway).

Anyway, the dect phone I was holding was too unreliable and kept cutting out, so I ended up asking the patient to come to the doctors desk to use the landline. Partway through, one of the surgical doctors asked me to come into a side office. When I got in, she stated firmly “You need to stop what you are doing. It’s not your role to cancel credit cards, and there are legal boundaries in helping her to do so.”

I had a think about this, and could definitely see where she was coming from. It looks sketchy to say the least when a doctor is helping a patient to cancel her credit cards. Almost like I could somehow financially benefit from the situation. I know I couldn’t do much for the patient aside from listening, so I thought the least I could do was to help her cancel her credit card to prevent someone from stealing her money.

In the end, her daughter arrived, and I quietly left the patient in the care of the daughter.

It frustrates me that because of legal issues, it prevents us from doing something decent. It’s something that I hear about to no end in China, where people are too afraid to help people on the streets who are hurt or ill, due to the fears of legal proceedings against them with false accusations.

But then again, in any system, if things like that are allowed to happen, then people end up changing. If the patient made a complaint against me, or if I was penalized for what I did for that elderly woman, I would be pretty stupid to do it all over again if something similar happens.