CAPE TOWN — Private hospital group Mediclinic International is lobbying the United Arab Emirates (UAE) federal government to change its medical liability laws to reduce the risk of doctors facing criminal charges from dissatisfied patients, saying the current system is putting a damper on Dubai’s plans to become a medical tourism destination.
Mediclinic has increasingly turned to markets outside South Africa for growth, and has invested in businesses in Switzerland and Dubai, which is a popular destination for South African medical professionals.
Unlike South Africa, where medical malpractice cases are civil matters, in the UAE patients can lay criminal charges against doctors. This means doctors may be arrested and imprisoned while awaiting trial, and if convicted face jail terms and hefty fines.
The issue has come under international media scrutiny following the arrest last month of Cape Town pediatric oncologist Cyril Karabus for the alleged manslaughter of a child he treated while working as a locum in Abu Dhabi in 2002.
Without his knowledge, he was tried and convicted in absentia without an opportunity to defend himself, sentenced to a three-and-a-half-year jail term and ordered to pay “blood money” to the child’s family. He was arrested while in transit in Dubai airport, and is currently being held in an Abu Dhabi prison infirmary awaiting retrial.
Mediclinic’s Middle East CEO, David Hadley, declined to comment on the specifics of Prof Karabus’s case.
However, he noted that the legal system in Dubai allowed patients to lay charges against doctors at their local police station, and the public prosecutor then decided whether the matter should be pursued in a criminal or civil court. “We feel that the process is the wrong way round. The medical professionals should make the first judgment and if criminality is proven during this process it should then be taken to the public prosecutor,” Mr Hadley said.
“We have lobbied, and HH Princess Haya has also lobbied with the federal policy makers … which has given the debate much credence. To date policy makers have acknowledged the need for change, but it is still a work in progress,” he said in a telephone interview from Dubai.
Princess Haya chairs the Dubai Healthcare City, an economic free zone promoting itself as a medical tourism hub.
Mr Hadley said 30 medical malpractice claims had been brought against Mediclinic since it opened its doors there in 2006, three of which had been taken to the police, but none had resulted in a jail term for staff.
Mediclinic advised doctors of the risks they faced when they were recruited, he said. “It’s discussed quite exhaustively so the message gets across. Its not fine print, that’s for sure,” he said.
However, South African Medical Association deputy chairman Mark Sonderup said South African doctors were generally unaware of the medical liability risks they faced working in the UAE.
Melissa Kostler, a recruitment agent based in the region, said doctors should “spend an hour with a medical malpractice lawyer” to acquaint themselves with the potential pitfalls in the local legal system.
The Karabus family’s lawyer, Michael Bagraim, said doctors employed by large hospitals would be protected by the institutions’ medical liability insurance but those working on short-term locums were often not afforded this protection.
Prof Karabus’s case is expected to be back in court on Wednesday.
* This article previously incorrectly stated that Mediclinic had defended Cyril Karabus in a Dubai jail.
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