A DECLINE in the levels of professionalism among healthcare practitioners and the increasing cost of medical negligence demonstrate the need for greater public awareness of patients' rights and responsibilities when accessing healthcare, the Health Professions Council of SA's (HPCSA's) acting CEO, Dr Kgosi Letlape, said yesterday.

Speaking at the launch of a national radio awareness campaign on the role of the HPCSA, Dr Letlape said that SA had one of the best frameworks for accessing rights.

However, if patients did not properly understand their role in ensuring they received quality healthcare, or that their rights had limits, this had unacceptable costs for the healthcare system.

The HPCSA is concerned about figures from the Medical Protection Society - SA's largest indemnifier of medical practitioners - which indicated a 132% hike in the reported claim costs in 2011 compared with 2009 claims.

The council has received 2403 complaints since April last year. The complaints largely involved accounts and "improper relations with patients".

The HPCSA - which serves as the custodian of ethics and conduct for 200391 registered healthcare professionals in SA - is conducting a national radio campaign in all official languages this month and next.

This campaign, the first of its kind undertaken by the council, was "something that should have been done a long time ago", Dr Letlape said.

The HPCSA is hoping to stress that while practitioners are responsible for the quality of care given, patients are responsible for their own health.

Dr Letlape said healthcare providers were often faced with patients who withheld information that was crucial for accurate diagnosis, or did not understand the history of the treatment or their pre-existing conditions.

This meant many complaints received by the HPCSA were "workload-related". Practitioners faced challenges ensuring that the patient was properly informed of their condition and treatment, while dealing with large numbers of patients.

Dr Letlape said patients needed to understand that a "disease is not a one-off event", and keep track of their treatment.

Beyond decreasing complaints over unethical or negligent practice, litigation for clinical negligence - which was serving as a major "cost driver" for healthcare costs in both private and public hospitals - also needed to be addressed, he said.

Many provincial healthcare systems were already "under siege" from lawsuits and the council hoped the campaign would have some impact, he said.

The quality of management in Gauteng's health department had been under scrutiny since the beginning of the year after reports of deaths of newborns at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

This had raised concern in some quarters that a declining provincial healthcare system could lead to even more lawsuits, with the taxpayer ultimately footing the bill.

Gauteng health MEC Ntombi Mekgwe has defended the hospital, saying that underuse of primary healthcare facilities meant hospitals that should deal with critical cases were under pressure to deal with large numbers of unexpected deliveries.

Hospital CEO Johanna More said that because many patients had no record of prenatal care, there was a high number of emergency cases.

With Nick Hedley