Criminalising medical mistakes is questionable

November 13, 2003

Using the criminal justice system to punish doctors who make mistakes is questionable, according to a barrister in this week's BMJ.

Citing the case of Feda Mulhem, who was sentenced to eight months in prison after supervising the mistaken injection of a drug into the spine of a teenager with cancer, Jon Holbrook argues that he was not seeking to harm his patient. In fact he was intending to further his recovery.

His "crime" was that he made a mistake; he confused a drug that is injected intravenously with a drug that is injected into the spine. Even the most diligent, conscientious, and competent practitioner will make mistakes, he says.

The recent increase in prosecutions for medical manslaughter reflects society's changed attitude towards the notion of gross negligence, he writes. Our modern day intolerance of accidents as innocent events has tended to turn medical mistakes resulting in death into tragedies calling for criminal investigation. "Dr Mulhem was not the first doctor to be convicted of killing by accident and sadly he is unlikely to be the last."


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